Same As Ever

After a massive blackout and a near nuclear meltdown, FirstEnergy is up to its old tricks.

Ashlee Simpson Palace Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 22; $39.50, 216-241-6000
That day in October 2003 started like any other for FirstEnergy employees Kevin Blaskza and Steve Coppola. They arrived just after 8 a.m. at the company service yard in Old Bridge, New Jersey, where they loaded two wooden electricity poles onto a trailer. Each pole stood 40 feet high and weighed 2,000 pounds.

They secured the poles with three nylon straps, then drove 20 minutes to Sayreville. It took most of the day to connect the poles to the power grid. When the work was done, Blaskza began cinching the straps back down over the empty trailer.

One snapped.

Blaskza lurched backward, straining his back. The strap was four years old and deteriorated, but the company had never inspected it, Coppola says. If it had broken while the truck was loaded and moving, it would have sent two enormous poles tumbling onto the busy highway.

Though he wasn't badly hurt, Blaskza filed a minor injury report. That was standard practice at Jersey Central Power & Light -- until Akron-based FirstEnergy bought it two years before. "The company always said to tell them all the small stuff that was going on, so they could fix it before it got to be a big problem," Coppola says. (Blaskza declined to comment.)

But as employees already knew, safety was a much smaller concern under FirstEnergy. After the incident, the company didn't even bother to check the remaining straps, both of which were tattered, says Coppola. Instead, it suspended Blaskza for five days without pay, though FirstEnergy won't say why.

"You can print whatever the fuck you want in that paper," says spokesman Ralph DiNicola.

But according to linemen interviewed by Scene -- who did not want their names used, for fear of losing their jobs -- Blaskza was suspended because FirstEnergy blames every accident on workers, even when the cause is the company's own neglect. "These guys are arrogant, greedy bastards," Coppola says.

Of course, Ohioans were already aware of FirstEnergy's reputation. In 2002, workers at the Davis-Besse plant near Toledo stumbled upon a pineapple-sized hole in the nuclear reactor's lid. Federal experts describe it as the worst near-miss at a nuclear plant since the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979.

Then, on August 14, 2003, FirstEnergy's maintenance neglect caused the worst blackout in U.S. history, cutting electricity across the eastern seaboard.

And last Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency forced the company to pay $43.2 million in fines for breaking pollution rules, as well as more than a billion dollars to improve smog control at three of its plants.

After the Davis-Besse fiasco, the company vowed to improve safety. "My pledge to the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] is that we're going to continue to focus on these areas," said Chief Operating Officer Lew Myers in December 2003. "We're going to continue to show improvement."

According to employees and state investigators, however, FirstEnergy is still up to its old tricks.

On July 5, 2003, one month before the giant blackout, a thunderstorm battered the Jersey coast. Old transmission lines failed, cutting power to 180,000 people at the height of the shore's tourist season.

In the uproar that followed, the state Board of Public Utilities appointed an investigator to examine FirstEnergy's entire power grid. The subsequent report found that the company refused to replace electricity poles until they rotted through and snapped. More than half its transformers were over 30 years old. Yet FirstEnergy refused to replace them until they burned out.

Moreover, replacement transformers are rarely new. The company uses only re-conditioned transformers, most of which are decades old. "I'm nervous every time I hang one of those things," Coppola says. "About 20 percent of them burn up within the first two weeks, and then we gotta go out and replace it again."

All the while, customers are left to wait in the dark. And their waits are likely to grow longer.

As metropolitan New York and Philadelphia continue to push new subdivisions of enormous homes into New Jersey farmland, FirstEnergy has cut the size of the wire running to houses. It now uses the thinnest gauge allowed by law. It also switched to underground cable protected by the thinnest insulation available. "The minute you touch it, that insulation turns to dust," Coppola says. "We only use the cheapest, crappiest materials."

FirstEnergy takes its aging, inadequate equipment and pushes it beyond the breaking point. Nearly 20 percent of the company's transformers have experienced power surges far exceeding the loads they were built to handle.

These were not random incidents. They were part of FirstEnergy's business strategy, the New Jersey investigator wrote, which has "all the characteristics of operating equipment to its ultimate failure. This philosophy results in significant risks that equipment will fail during peak periods."

Blowing off maintenance leaves customers without power, but it saves money. FirstEnergy "does not provide a prudent balance between economics and reality," the investigator wrote. The company "focuses nearly exclusively on cost savings."

And since FirstEnergy wouldn't make improvements on its own, New Jersey ordered it to spend $210 million over the next five years on basic maintenance.

Not all the company's problems are the result of mechanical failure, however. Many lie rooted in its strained relationship with workers, the investigator found.

It took FirstEnergy five days to restore power after the thunderstorms in 2003. That was partly because there weren't enough linemen to do the work. Within weeks of taking over the New Jersey utility, FirstEnergy discontinued the company's training program for young linemen. Then it stopped hiring them altogether.

FirstEnergy also stopped investigating minor accidents to see how it could make operations safer. Instead, it began suspending and terminating employees for reporting even the smallest incidents. One lineman got a three-day suspension for tripping in the snow. Two meter readers twisted their ankles working through a blizzard. Both received letters of reprimand. Another meter reader slipped down the stairs of a house, twisting his ankle. He limped through the rest of his route, then filed a minor accident report. He received a five-day suspension without pay.

"FirstEnergy was bragging that the amount of injuries was way down at these various utilities since they took over," says Ed Cohen, an attorney for several employee unions. "And the truth of the matter is that they were terrorizing employees out of reporting injuries and accidents."

Cohen brought over 100 such incidents to the attention of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which overturned many of the suspensions, he says.

"This case is not closed," according to Kate Dugan, spokeswoman for OSHA's Philadelphia office. "We're continuing to investigate this company."

Many workers quit or took early retirement rather than accept the company's bullying, says Coppola. FirstEnergy responded to its labor shortage by attempting to replace veteran linemen with untrained, inexperienced workers. "That leaves me up in the bucket, doing dangerous work in terrible conditions, and the guy on the ground doesn't know what the hell he's doing," Coppola says. "They're just trying to hire the cheapest labor they can. And somebody's going to get seriously hurt. "

In part to protest the company's safety rules, 1,350 workers went on strike in December. Employees also objected to FirstEnergy's attempt to increase their health costs by 1000 percent.

The strike stretched on for nearly four months. It wouldn't have been possible without support from FirstEnergy workers in northern Ohio, who sent tens of thousands of dollars to help strikers buy food and medicine. "The union guys in Ohio have been incredible," says Danny Clare, president of the Electrical Workers Local 1330. "They've been dealing with this company way longer than we have, so they know what we're up against."

Last week, the strikers agreed to a contract and returned to work. FirstEnergy won the right to use untrained workers on line crews. Union bosses say the strike ended in a draw. "Our rules are gonna change," says Clare. "But it's been four months. People are hurting. It's time to go back to work."

Members of the rank and file are less than ecstatic. "The company got what it wanted, and we didn't get shit," Coppola says.

And regulators know that as FirstEnergy continues to cut costs, the public's best hope for reliable electricity is hope itself. Given the company's safety program, the state investigator wrote, the only way to prevent future blackouts is to pray for mild winters and summers without heavy storms. "We are winging it," says Coppola.

Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.