Letcher Commonwealth’s Attorney Edison G. Banks II will ask a county grand jury to investigate citizen complaints being leveled against Kentucky Power Company in the wake of a snowstorm which left more than 7,000 households here without power, some of them for more than four days already.
“On January 7, I am going to tell the (jurors) the nature of the complaints I have gotten and ask them to start an investigation,” said Banks.
Banks said most of the complaints he has heard concern a belief shared by many local residents that Kentucky Power is no longer spending the money necessary to keep its service lines in good operating condition and cleared of small trees. investigated Kentucky Power Company’s local performance in 1996 after a series of frequent power outages. As a result of the grand jury’s action, the Kentucky Public Service Commission conducted its own investigation of Kentucky Power, then known by the name of its parent firm AEP, and determined that indeed the company was not performing satisfactorily in Letcher County.
While Kentucky Power took some initial steps toward repairing its image after the PSC’s finding in 1996, such as rebuilding lines and clearing trees away from some troublesome rights-of-way, it seemed only a matter of months before citizens were again complaining that the power company was ignoring their requests to trim trees that had consumed power lines.
More than one property owner told The Mountain Eagle
this week that Kentucky Power has refused numerous requests to cut trees which have grown into power lines. Banks has been getting similar complaints.
“They’ve not seen them do any maintenance like they promised they would do,” said Banks.
Ronn Robinson, corporate communications manager with AEP Kentucky Power, said the outages are the result of “storm-related damages” and nothing else.
“We spend millions of dollars every year maintaining right-ofways,” said Robinson. “We do our best to maintain the right-of-ways the best we can. Most of the trees that fell weren’t in the right-ofways.”
Letcher County Judge/Executive Jim Ward said the “power company needs to come in and do updates on our lines.”
“They are going to have to do a better job of cutting the right of ways to keep the trees from falling on the power lines,” said Ward. “I don’t know that all of it could have been prevented, but the majority of it could have been prevented.”
Ward said he has been in contact with the Public Service Commission and Gov. Steve Beshear.
“I told the governor myself that in some way we are going to have to address this problem,” said Ward. “He did say we needed to look into it and see what needs to be done.”
Banks said people also had concerns that when they called to report power outages the person on the other end of the phone line was not someone from southeastern Kentucky.
“Nobody seems to know who is in charge,” said Banks. “If you do have luck and get through to a person, you are talking to someone far, far away. They just don’t know the area well enough.”
Banks said he will ask the Public Service Commission to hold hearings in eastern Kentucky “where people can tell their stories firsthand.”
Former Letcher Commonwealth’s Attorney William Lewis Collins was in charge of the 1996 grand jury which voted to subpoena AEP officials and ask the Public Service Commission to investigate the company’s performance after power outages kept some people from voting during an election that year.
“We had a huge snowstorm and power was out to polling places and several people couldn’t vote,” said Collins. “It did put such a cramp on one election that we saw an opportunity to make them look at it.”
Collins said the investigation resulted in the finding that electrical service in Letcher County was worse than in other counties served by AEP.
“Lo and behold there was actually a significant failing from the power company,” said Collins. “Letcher County was worse. I think it sort of surprised everyone on how big the difference was.”
Collins said the power company made improvements, including trimming trees and building a new substation, after the investigation was complete.
“There were noticeable and demonstrative improvements in the next year,” said Collins.
Collins said in regard to the current power outages in the county, it needs to be determined whether Letcher County was treated differently than other counties.
“The question is whether or not Letcher County is a lot worse off than any other counties,” said Collins.