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Case highlights growing risks of utility cutoffs

Fire killed tots whose parents did not pay bill. Critics blame Act 201.

Police tape surrounds the Swatara Township home of Ryan and Debbie Donachy on Nov 3, 2007, a fatal fire killed two of their children, Britton, 2, and Onna, 18 months. The Donachys were charged in the aftermath. (House photo: Paul Chaplin / The Patriot-News)
Police tape surrounds the Swatara Township home of Ryan and Debbie Donachy on Nov 3, 2007, a fatal fire killed two of their children, Britton, 2, and Onna, 18 months. The Donachys were charged in the aftermath. (House photo: Paul Chaplin / The Patriot-News)Read more

A deadly fire blamed on an untended candle has drawn attention to a case last month before the Public Utility Commission that centered on whether a central Pennsylvania power company wrongly cut off electricity to a Dauphin County family.

Advocates for Pennsylvania's poor say the case highlights a larger concern, especially in the face of winter and a deep recession: that sharp increases in cutoffs this year by Pennsylvania utilities could lead not only to widespread hardship but also to more tragedies.

The advocates say the case also illustrates problems stemming from a 2004 law that loosened termination rules, such as by allowing terminations on Fridays.

The Dauphin County fire killed Britton Donachy, 2, and his sister Onna, 1, on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2007, a day after PPL Electric Utilities Corp. terminated service because the children's parents hadn't paid their bill.

Dauphin County authorities blame the parents for the fire. Ryan and Debbie Donachy were charged with criminal homicide, endangering the welfare of a child, and possession of drug paraphernalia. Ryan Donachy is scheduled for trial Monday.

But the PUC conducted its own inquiry, looking more narrowly into the events that led to the termination, and did not like what it found either.

PUC investigators concluded that PPL Electric had broken various rules in the case and ultimately had erred in terminating service. The utility disputed the findings, but has agreed to settle the case by promising to modify its procedures and by paying $300,000 to a fund that aids financially distressed customers.

This week, lawyers who represent low-income consumers challenged the tentative settlement as a slap on the wrist for a company that reported more than $1 billion in profit on $6.5 billion in revenue last year, and called instead for the PUC to impose at least $10 million in fines.

The advocates also repeated a call for restoration of consumer protections eliminated in 2004 by passage of Act 201, best known for ending a 30-year moratorium on most winter terminations.

Among the other protections the law ended was the bar on Friday terminations, which had been prohibited because of the difficulty in getting aid or having a mistaken shutoff reversed over a weekend. The law also dropped a rule that all shutoffs be preceded by in-person notification - though such notice is still required during winter.

"If you have face-to-face notice, maybe you see that there are infants there," said Jonathan M. Stein, general counsel at Philadelphia's Community Legal Service, which joined the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project in contesting the settlement. "Or maybe you see an older person with Alzheimer's, or a person on kidney dialysis."

PPL spokesman Ryan Hill said the utility "followed all the relevant laws and regulations." He called shutoffs "a last resort - something we'll consider only when all other means of collecting from a customer have failed."

On Monday, the PUC is due to report to the legislature on how well Act 201 is working. Also due next week are data from Pennsylvania utilities' annual cold-weather surveys, which last year identified nearly 17,000 households around the state that were entering winter without a working source of central heat after a utility termination.

Through October, Peco Energy had terminated 68,758 of about 1.4 million residential customers - a 41 percent increase over the same period in 2007. Peco's reconnections had also risen in that same period: up 43 percent over 2007, to 45,923, according to PUC data.

Terminations by Philadelphia Gas Works also jumped, 26 percent, to 28,426 of the 480,000 households it serves. The municipal utility said this week that about 9,000 households still lacked service, despite efforts to work out payment plans and connect customers with sources of assistance.

"It's obviously a bigger number than we want," said PGW vice president Steve Hershey.

Spokeswoman Cathy Engel said Peco would not release until Monday data on households without service.

Statewide, the PUC said 274,081 gas and electric customers had been terminated during the first 10 months of the year, 20 percent more than during the same period in 2007. Service had been restored to 185,155 customers.

Utility officials caution that the difference between terminations and reconnections can't be taken as a count of households without utility service. By Oct. 31, 2007, for example, Peco had terminated 15,000 more customers than it had reconnected, but its winter canvass found only 1,500 households without heat.

"Some properties go vacant. Sometimes, customers reconnect with a new account number and name," said Engel, the Peco spokeswoman. In other cases, she said, canvassers find that a dwelling is getting service illegally, such as by tapping into power lines or running extension cords from a neighboring apartment.

Harry Geller, who heads the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, warned that service thefts share a characteristic with legal accommodations such as space heaters: Both put household members and others in jeopardy.

"People are unable to live without heat or light, and they're going to make some sort of makeshift arrangements that put them and their neighbors at risk," Geller said.

Those risks are evident in a document that the PUC released this week in response to a request by The Inquirer under Pennsylvania's open-records law. Maintained informally by staff members at the agency, the document tracks media accounts of fire deaths and other fatalities apparently linked to utility terminations.

This year, the list includes two incidents and 11 deaths.

In January, a 26-year-old man died of carbon-monoxide poisoning in Allegheny County at a home without power where a generator was being used and a stove and oven were found on.

In the other case, a Brockway, Pa., worker on the night shift lost his wife and nine children and grandchildren in a house that lacked gas service where space heaters were being used.

Advocates such as Stein and Geller say the shutoff problem has been aggravated by Act 201 and the resulting loss of consumer protections, including PUC oversight of payment plans.

Utilities say the old rules made it harder for them to exert leverage on customers who ignore other warnings.

"Termination is the last resort for us," said Peco's Engel. "Unfortunately, there are customers who have the ability to pay and do not pay for the service they receive until they're in the termination process."

Stein said the PUC list of deaths, which counts 10 in the four years before the law's passage and 29 in the four years after it, supports his belief that Act 201 has put more Pennsylvanians at risk.

"These deaths will be repeated," Stein said. "The biggest factor we see is the weakening of the safety net as a result of Act 201."