By Ramona du Houx
Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, House chair of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, introduced two measures to deter electric utilities from leaving power lines at unsafe heights and to ban misleading winter disconnection threats as part of the collections process. At a public hearing, Berry said both bills would help reduce CMP’s “shameless neglect and abuse of workers, small businesses and customers.”
“They say ‘no line is safe to touch,’ but then they dangle high voltages dangerously and illegally low, close to workers and businesses,” said Rep. Berry.
LD 840 would undo an exemption from liability that CMP and other electricity utilities have, but most other businesses do not.
The bill stems from a 2002 incident in which Bryan Smith, an 18-year-old boatyard worker in Penobscot, sustained a 42 percent whole body permanent impairment injury by contact with a CMP line that was 30 feet high and was legally required to be at 45 feet.
“This was a tragic and devastating experience,” said former Penobscot Boatyard owner, Andrea Devereux. “I would give anything to have been able to protect Bryan more, but I can’t do that. I also can’t ask you to go back and change the law so that things turned out differently for me, or for my family, or our business. I am just here today because I hope you will change the law, so that CMP at least shares a little bit more responsibility for the hazards their lines can create when they are poorly and illegally maintained.”
CMP was at first fined $6 million, but that decision was reversed by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on a technicality.
“CMP’s poor management of their power lines caused the near-death electrocution of this young man,” added Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, another member of the committee. “They used a legal loophole to dodge any liability. We must stop this from happening again.”
Attorney Barry Mills, who represented Devereux, also testified before the committee and spoke about the Overhead High-Voltage Line Safety Act. “I know of no other instance in our law that provides, when the combined negligence of two or more persons or corporations causes injury, only one is responsible,” said Mills.
Also presented Tuesday, LD 1328 would prevent electric utilities from issuing disconnection notices during the winter, a practice that has affected thousands of Mainers. The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) does not allow residential winter disconnections, yet they do allow notices of winter disconnection, including communications about specific dates when the power will be shut off. In fact, according to testimony submitted by the PUC, in the winter of 2019-2020, CMP issued 109,573 winter disconnection notices, and Versant issued 66,884.
“Poverty, a global pandemic, and loss of income in many households, plus the crippling impact of a PUC decision to summarily dismiss thousands of CMP billing disputes, left many customers with balances over 3 and 4 thousand dollars,” said Berry. “It is unconscionable that CMP and Versant were allowed to lie and to bully customers with 175,000 empty threats of winter disconnection in 2019, and who but CMP knows how many in 2020 and 2021?”
Nicole Batchelder of Leeds said in written testimony that she received one of the disconnection notices in question in December of 2020, shortly before Christmas, and that she felt she was being bullied at a time when she was already struggling.
“We understand we need to pay the bills, somehow, someday, but the disconnection notices will not make the money magically grow on trees in our backyards,” wrote Batchelder. “The only thing the threatening winter disconnect notices accomplish during these turbulent times is additional, unneeded stress.”
The committee will hold work sessions and potentially vote on both of Berry’s measures in the coming weeks. Both bills were also supported in testimony by current or former Republican lawmakers: LD 840 by Rep. Nathan Carlow, R-Buxton, and LD 1328 by former Rep. Les Fossel of Alna, who testified alongside his wife as a victim of CMP’s billing practices.
Berry represents House District 55: Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Swan Island and most of Richmond. He previously served from 2006-2014, the final two years as House majority leader, and returned to the House in 2016.