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Customers oppose reimbursing Ohio utility $62M

Andrew Welsh-Huggins, AP Legal Affairs Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- American Electric Power Co. is facing opposition from around the state to the utility's request to make its Ohio customers pick up a $62 million tab for repairs from last summer's severe storms.

The company's request filed with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio late last year is one of the largest ever in the state. Regulators aren't expected to rule until the spring.

Nearly three dozen customers from Columbus, Lima, Newark, Wooster and elsewhere have asked the PUCO to oppose the request. They say the utility should accept the loss as the price of doing business, take out insurance for such catastrophes and do more to trim trees and bury power lines.

Tonda Young of Glenford in southeast Ohio lost power for nine days, beginning June 29 and lost hundreds of dollars in frozen and refrigerated food. She also spent extra money eating out and driving miles to find stores with supplies.

"People are stretched as tight as they can be right now with the economy," said Young, 52, a retired cleaning woman on disability with breathing problems and a bad back. "This is ridiculous for a company that makes that good of a profit to ask people to do something like this."

Newark resident Jerry Goodman told the PUCO in his Jan. 10 filing that his gasoline bill skyrocketed as he was forced to drive extra miles to buy groceries and get to a Laundromat.

In Lima, Nancy and Lauren Oberdier lost at least $250 in food during the weekend their power went out — including milk, bread, cheese, meat and ice cream — and would have lost more had they not turned back from their weekly grocery shopping as the storm hit, the couple said. They also lost phone service and had to drive around to charge their cellphones.

"We pay our bills. They (the utility) should pay their bills, too," Oberdier, 76, a retired administrative assistant, said Monday.

The increase, if approved by the commission, would cost about $3 a month for a year for a typical household, or about a 2 percent increase.

AEP's system sustained mass power failures because of a June 29 storm that downed trees, snapped power poles and turned bits of debris into projectiles. Nearly half of the utility's 1.5 million Ohio customers lost power, some for more than a week.

The $61.8 million reimbursement includes damage from the June 29 storm, plus thunderstorms that hit July 18 and July 26.

The majority of the request covers the cost of bringing in outside utility workers to get power restored as quickly as possible, AEP spokeswoman Terri Flora said Monday.

"We recognize their inconvenience, which is why we bring in the vast amounts of resources we do in order get power restored after these events," Flora said.

The company says insurance for such events isn't available and would be prohibitively expensive even if it were.

Over the years the utility has decided against charging customers a fee to build up a reserve to cover catastrophic events, as some utilities do in hurricane-prone states, Flora added. The company is willing to bury more lines but it's an expensive proposition that would have to be shared with consumers, she said.

No amount of tree trimming could have prevented last summer's damage, which involved 80 mph winds slamming debris into lines, she said.


Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.