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Lineworkers blame PSE for poor storm response

"An organization that represents electrical workers in the state claims that it took an unnecessarily long time for Puget Sound Energy to restore power to Whidbey Island and surrounding areas after the wind storm last Thursday night.The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 77 sent out a press release criticizing Puget Sound Energy for having an inadequate workforce of lineworkers to fix downed power lines during storms. The union claims that the company's plans to contract out for repair work and its support for deregulation has forced lineworkers to move to California in search of new jobs. If we look at Whidbey Island, there are only three Puget Sound Energy crews and one contract crew left on the island to service around 30,000 customers on a regular basis, said Dave Timothy, the business manager for Local Union 77. This is critically short in a storm situation.Puget Sound Energy Corporate Relations Manager Karl Kirn, however, counters that there is no shortage of lineworkers in the area and that employees were able to restore power with amazing speed, considering the amount of damage.We have three crews on Whidbey, he said. That's the same number we've had for the past five years.The wind storm, which wasn't predicted by any weather service, brought gusts up to 70 miles, knocking down innumerable trees, power poles and even destroying a house on West Beach.There were over 50 reports of wind-related damage on North and Central Whidbey in a 12-hour period from Thursday night into Friday morning.Kirn said power went out on the entire island Thursday night after the two transmission lines near Deception Pass were pushed down by fallen trees. Before turning the power back on, he said the lineworkers had to check the length of every single distribution line in an area and fix any problems. Since there were dozens of downed lines, that meant a whole lot of fixing.The electricians worked from the north end of the island southward, which meant a full day in the darkness for Clinton residents. Kirn said they were able to turn power back on in Oak Harbor by 9 a.m. Friday, in Freeland by 4 p.m. and in Langley by 6:30 p.m.In all, Kirn said there were 28 crews of lineworkers out in Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties - but only three on Whidbey. A crew can consist of two to six people. He said he wasn't certain of how many PSE employees were actually working on Whidbey.While the number of lineworkers on Whidbey hasn't kept up with population growth and development in the last five years, Kirn said PSE has invested heavily on the island. The company put in two individual transmission lines and doubled the number of distribution lines in order to create a redundancy that makes outages less frequent.Many times we have lines down and residents aren't even aware of it, he said.Yet the union claims that PSE employees are aware of the company's plans to lay off workers. The concerns spawn from the power company's announcement last February that it would start relying on contractors for repair and maintenance work. Many of the workers are quitting because of this uncertainty and are looking for work in other states.What's left is a substantial shortage of crews to bring the lights back on, Timothy said, so the company hires contract workers at a marked cost increase to fill the gaps, but the end result is still response times for a high price.That, the union says, has resulted in higher rates and diminished customer service. "

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