Media orgs seek to join power outage records cases

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HARRISBURG – A dozen media organizations, including the Associated Press, sought standing Tuesday to oppose attempts by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to prevent release of documents concerning PPL’s handling of a large-scale power outage in 2011.


The organizations made the requests with Commonwealth Court, seeking to intervene in a pair of petitions for review filed last month by the PUC.


The PUC has appealed a pair of orders by the Office of Open Records directing the agency to produce a letter that tipped it off about how PPL repair crews were redirected during an unusual October 2011 snowstorm that left hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians without power.


The Morning Call of Allentown and the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader requested the tip letter, and The Morning Call requested other related records. The PUC fined PPL $60,000 but did not disclose details about the incident.


In their application for permission to intervene, the news organizations wrote that the records at stake involve a matter of great public concern: “the compliance by a public utility of regulations implemented by the public agency that oversees that utility, the PUC, and the impact upon the customers of that public utility when those regulations are not properly followed.”


The PUC has said releasing the letter could expose the tipster.


Morning Call editor David Erdman said the objective is to figure out what occurred when power was restored and that there is no intention of identifying the anonymous tipster. He said the participation of other media outlets indicates the importance of the principles at stake.


“It really does show that everyone has an interest in this, and that we hope to demonstrate to the PUC that this isn’t just a case about one newspaper or two,” Erdman said.


PPL Corp. spokesman Paul Wirth described the power restoration incident as “a misunderstanding that led a lower-level supervisor to make the wrong assignment for one repair group.”


He said the decision violated PPL procedures that give a higher priority to restoring power for outages that affect larger numbers of customers, and that changes have been adopted to avoid a repeat of the mistake.


Wirth declined to say which area got repaired more quickly than it should have, or the area which languished without electricity, citing a confidentiality agreement with the PUC.


In a court filing, PPL has said the tipster identified himself or herself as a PPL employee.


PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said the agency will be reviewing news organizations’ filing.


“We believe that releasing the letter would expose the whistleblower, and we maintain that we need to continue to protect whistleblowers because they have proven to be vital in our role as watchdogs over the utilities,” Kocher said.


In its petition seeking review before Commonwealth Court, the PUC wrote that the tipster’s letter had information that might make it possible to learn his or her identity.


“The tip letter also identifies the person accused of directing the improper retasking of repair crews; disclosure of the identity of this person would operate to the prejudice or impairment of his or her reputation,” the state agency said.


PPL has said in court documents that the storm cut power to about 388,000 customers, and about a third of them were without electricity for more than 24 hours. It called the storm the third-most-damaging in PPL territory since 1991.


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