Bill Calls for Better Quality Utility Poles in Wake of Sandy

Gathering at the South Orange Department of Public Works on Tuesday are, from left: Maplewood Committeeman Marlon Brownlee, West Caldwell Mayor Joseph Tempesta Jr., Millburn Mayor Sandy Haimoff, East Hanover Mayor Joseph Pannullo, Assemblywoman Mila Jacey, Assemblyman John McKeon, South Orange President Alex Torpey, South Orange Trustee Howard Levison and Madison Mayor Bob Conley. Credits: Amy Kiste Nyberg

[UPDATES with comment from PSE&G.] SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. – Utility companies would be required to upgrade the quality of their poles under a bill announced by Assemblyman John McKeon at a news conference on Tuesday morning.

McKeon, D-Essex/Morris, also unveiled a bill that would direct the Board of Public Utilities to conduct a study to determine what type of replacement poles are needed to improve utility infrastructure. He said these bills would be part of a package of legislation taking a “comprehensive approach” to problems encountered during Hurricane Sandy.

He said he is hoping that state Legislature will move forward on the proposals in January.

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McKeon was joined by his colleague in the Assembly, Mila M. Jacey, a Democrat who also represents the 27th District, along with municipal officials. The South Orange Department of Public Works building was selected as the site of the news conference because several DPW workers were trapped there during the storm by a downed tree and live wires, and according to South Orange Village President Alex Torpey, Public Service Electric & Gas emergency dispatchers “refused to even send out a crew to take a look at the problem, much less fix it.”

Karen Johnson, a spokeswoman for PSE&G said she could not comment yet on McKeon's proposal because company officials have not had time to review it. "However, I can tell you all of our poles and other outside electrical equipment meets the National Electric Safety Code standards,” she said.

A representatives for New Jersey Center Power & Light was not available to comment prior to publication.

McKeon said his attention to the quality of materials was fueled in part by conversations with out-of-state utility workers. He said one crew from Michigan asked him, “How is it your state allows utility companies to put up such flabby poles?”

According to McKeon, pole quality is rated from one (best) to 10 (worst) in terms of materials, circumference and weight. “The quality of poles we are using in New Jersey are less than the best they can be,” he said. “As far as distribution poles are concerned, we use a quality of five.”

He noted that during the storm, PSE&&G lost about 6,700 poles and JCP&L lost about 3,000 poles.

“We need to call them to task,” McKeon said of the utility companies. Jacey reiterated McKeon’s call to action. “I think this is a really good time to take the lead in making sure our constituents are well cared for and better served by the utility companies.”

Municipal officials who spoke echoed his concerns about infrastructure, but they also were critical of communication and with information provided by utility companies.

Torpey, of South Orange, noted that problems with “lack of consistent and reliable information coming from our utility company, PSE&G,” were problems last year as well. He said that while communities can work at the local level to improve emergency preparedness, “we need a commitment from everybody to step up and do better so that next time, we’re better prepared.”

Madison Mayor Bob Conley, whose borough has its own utility company, agreed that local preparations are key. “A quick recovery is what you do on a sunny day, not a stormy day,” he said.

But it was East Hanover Mayor Joseph Pannullo who most clearly expressed frustration with the utility companies’ performance. He noted that his community was without power for 14 days, and during that time he slept in his office with his cell phone on his chest.

“JCP&L is an inferior electric company,” he said. “They should not be purveyors of electricity in this state.”  He said he would give the utility companies a grade of A. “A is for awful,” he clarified.

Torpey said he plans to launch a website that would centralize information about efforts by municipalities and the state to implement changes for the BPU and the utility companies.

The reporter is participating in a hyperlocal journalism partnership between The Alternative Press and Seton Hall University's Department of Communication & The Arts.

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