The Supreme Judicial Court today upheld the basic logic behind a state decision to fine National Grid and NStar for their responses to Hurricane Irene and a snowstorm two months later, but said state regulators were a bit too overzealous in the fines they levied.
The ruling by the state's highest court means National Grid has to pay a $17.8 million fine for failing to procure adequate manpower in advance of the storms and for doing a poor job communicating with the public and local officials - a $900,000 reduction - while NStar has to pay $2.1 million for crappy post-storm communications - down from the $4.1 million the state wanted to levy. The court wiped $2 million off the NStar fine because while the state Department of Public Utilities made the case that NStar did a bad job letting people know when their power would be restored, the department failed to prove that NStar did a poor job actually responding to all but immediate, life-threatening power outages.
Besides critiquing the fine values, the court also upheld the state's argument that it be allowed to levy fines at all.
The utilities, along with a third electric company in the western part of the state, had argued regulators could only make decisions that would affect electric rates. The court ruled that was the case until 2009, when Gov. Patrick signed a new law that specifically let the DPU levy penalties for bad performance during and after a storm - following an incident in which some customers in Fitchburg went without power for up to two weeks after a storm.