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SEC responds to member's concerns; explain why power restoration is taking so long

"We've got to understand that this is a once in a lifetime event."
Posted at 7:20 PM, Feb 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-23 23:48:36-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Eleven days into power restoration efforts, CBS 6 hoped to finally speak with Jeff Edwards, the President of Southside Electric Cooperative.

But after committing to the interview, Edwards canceled, and sent us his Vice President of Member Services and Public Relations, Ron White.

"Safety and our crews and their safety is the number one priority, so that is what Jeff is focused on right now, making sure that is happening safely and that our members' lights are on before we get into the weekend," White said.

"Can you commit to Jeff doing an interview with us by the end of the week?" CBS 6 Problem Solver Melissa Hipolit asked.

"He will be more than willing to do an interview with you next week after we have gotten this full restoration process behind us," White responded.

White, who also lobbies on behalf of the SEC before the General Assembly, explained what the utility did to prepare for the ice storm that hit the region on February 13.

"At the time with the forecast we had, we had 18 mutual aid crews, 10 contact crews and 8 contact tree crews. We had them positioned ready to go," White told CBS 6.

"So how many people does that amount to if you have 18 mutual aid crews here?" Hipolit asked.

"I don't have those numbers Melissa. The important thing is the number of crews because that's what you work with in a restoration environment," White replied.

White said there are now roughly 900 personnel helping with restoration, a number he said is ten times greater than day one. But, he said it was not easy getting mutual aid crews here due to severe weather in different parts of the country.

"All of those crews that are normally available for mutual aid, those organizations aren't going to let their people go to assist someone else in Virginia when they're dealing with their own devastation for their customers and members," White said.

The cooperative serves about 55,000 homes and businesses. Technically, those customers are considered members of the not-for-profit utility.

Numerous members have reached out to CBS 6 concerned that the cooperative may not have had enough supplies on hand to make repairs immediately after the storm passed.

But White said they did.

"What I would tell you is we have never, not once, not a single issue with having what we needed when we needed it to do restoration in this storm or any other storm," White said.

Several members have also questioned the antiquated age of some of the power poles in Southside's coverage area, sending us pictures that appear to show poles and parts that are over 50 years old.

"The age of the pole is not what determines whether the pole is still a functioning pole. We do inspections by guidelines of the utility and federal regulations as far as what is expected," White said.

Some members have also asked if the SEC did enough to trim or remove trees near power lines before the storm hit.

"Without a doubt our preventative maintenance program is not just to standard, but in many ways we go above and beyond what is the minimum requirement of what we need to do," White said.

White said they have two arborists on staff, but one of their biggest challenges is they are only allowed to maintain trees up to 30 feet from a distribution line.

"If you've got a 100 foot pine tree that is 40 feet away that you can't cut down when you have an ice storm, the 100 foot pine tree is going to win every time," White said.

Still, a number of Southside's members told CBS 6 they are not happy with the way the co-op handled the storm, especially given what they pay.

We confirmed with the State Corporation Commission that Southside charges the fourth highest rates in Virginia among the state's 12 co-ops.

"Do you think the rates are fair considering that some members at this point have been in the dark for over a week, over 10 days?" Hipolit asked.

"Our rates are fair, they are fair rates," White replied.

"Do you feel like you failed your members?" Hipolit asked.

"We are in the business of service, and if we have a member that goes a day without electricity, we hurt. We don't want our members without power, but, again, we've got to understand that this is a once in a lifetime event, this ice event," White responded.

The SEC said it has currently received 167 complaints from Southside members related to the storm, and it will conduct a post-event analysis to explore how well-prepared Southside was ahead of the storm.

White said he welcomes the review.

"I would drive to Richmond and escort them down here. That's what we need, an external independent team to come in here, because we are confident in how we maintained our system," White said.