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Ohio Utility Denies Blackout Blame

The head of the Ohio utility that has been at the center of the blackout investigation told a congressional hearing Thursday that a combination of events over a broad area triggered the nation's worst blackout and that once trouble hit "it was beyond the ability of operators to control."

FirstEnergy Corp. Chairman H. Peter Burg strongly rejected suggestions that a series of high voltage line failures in his company's system south of Cleveland during the hour before the blackout should be singled out as a cause. "Our system was still stable" even after those outages, he told the lawmakers.

Burg was the opening witness at a hearing by the House Energy and Commerce Committee a day after the panel released transcripts showing technicians in the FirstEnergy control center confused and uncertain of what was happening when the lines began to trip in the hour before the blackout Aug. 14.

FirstEnergy provided the committee with a list of incidents and power transmission problems outside the company's service area in an attempt to deflect the intense attention that has been aimed at the Ohio utility company as investigators searched for what triggered the massive power outage.

"We believe it's not possible for a few isolated events on any individual utility system to explain the widespread nature of this outage," said Burg. "FirstEnergy believes that the Aug. 14 outage can only be the result of a combination of events that occurred across the Eastern Interconnection."

He characterized the Midwest grid as a boxer going down. "The last punch was important, but the accumulation of all the previous blows led to his weakened condition."

Burg did not address in his opening remarks the transcripts of telephone communications between FirstEnergy engineers and a regional grid monitoring agency in the hour before the blackout, but was certain to be questioned about them by lawmakers.

They showed technicians struggling to figure out what was happening to their high-voltage transmission system on the afternoon of Aug. 14 before the full force of the blackout hit, darkening cities across all or parts of eight states from eastern Michigan to New York City.

"We have no clue," an engineer at the FirstEnergy Corp. control center in Ohio responded when a regional grid monitor asked what was happening.

The company and its operation of the grid system south of Cleveland have been at the center of the investigation into the blackout, although FirstEnergy officials have said there were problems on other systems across the Midwest that afternoon, not just in its service area.

Resuming a second day of hearings on Thursday, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee were expected to closely question FirstEnergy officials about its power line problems during the hour before the blackout and how its technicians responded. The transcripts, copies of which were released by the committee, were expected to be a focus.

In all, the House panel released 650 pages of transcripts of telephone communications provided by the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, including exchanges between MISO grid monitors and FirstEnergy, during the afternoon of Aug. 14.

At about 3:32 p.m. Eastern time that day, a high-voltage line called Hanna-Juniper tripped after power was diverted to it following the failure of another line, causing an overload and the line to sag, hitting a tree.

But four minutes later in the FirstEnergy control room, technicians had no idea what just happened, according to the transcripts.

"Something strange is happening," an MISO technician, Don Hunter, told the Ohio utility, not sure what was amiss. "I've got to find my calculator," he said, trying to get a handle on the power fluctuations.

Told of the failure, a FirstEnergy technician, identified as Schwartz, said, "Daggone it. When did that happen?"

"We've got something going on," he added, promising to investigate. But for the next 20 minutes there was confusion over what lines were out and what the implication might be for the power grid.

Two hours earlier a FirstEnergy coal-burning power plant had gone down and then the nuclear reactor near Perry, Ohio, began having problems.

"They're having a hard time maintaining voltage," a FirstEnergy technician identified as Jerry Snickey told the MISO official at the other end of the phone line, referring to the nuclear unit.

The transmission failures also were still a mystery.

"We have no idea what happened," Snickey said. "We have no clue. Our computer is giving us fits too. We don't even know the status of some of the stuff (power fluctuations) around us."

Hunter, who was at the MISO grid monitoring center in Indiana, expressed frustration at the failure to diagnose the problems erupting in FirstEnergy's system.

"I called you guys like 10 minutes ago, and I thought you were figuring out what was going on there," he complained, according to the transcripts.

"Well, we're trying to," Snickey replied. "Our computer is not happy. It's not cooperating either."

"I can't get a big picture of what's going on," Hunter fretted.