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By Matt Murphy

The Sun of Lowell

BOSTON — The House passed a set of new laws this week aimed at holding public utility companies more accountable to their customers by increasing fines and threatening to put companies in receivership if they fail to perform.

Though the bill relates to all utility companies, the Legislature’s action was directed at Unitil and its response to an ice storm last December that left thousands of customers without power for weeks.

Representatives blasted Unitil on the floor of the House, with Rep. Robert Hargraves, R-Groton, calling the company’s response “reminiscent of the Marx Brothers or Larry, Moe and Curley.”

Rep. Jennifer Benson, who represents one of the communities most impacted by the storm, Lunenburg, gave her maiden speech during the House debate.

She called the bill a “good start,” specifically pointing to a provision that would allow the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to intervene in a case of emergency. It would allow an independent operator to take over the company for up to 120 days if the state finds that a company’s management practices are to blame for a poor response to outages.

“It shouldn’t be up to a new (representative) like me to come to the Statehouse and beg for help,” Benson said.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Stephen DiNatale, D-Fitchburg, calls for the Department of Public Utilities to conduct an audit of a utility that serves more than 100,000 customers if that company fails to restore power in a “timely” manner.

If the audit finds management at fault, that company can be placed into receivership for up to 120 days to improve performance and potentially restructure management.

Furthermore, all utilities must submit emergency response plans to the state annually by May 15 that include protocols for accessing mutual aid in case of emergencies.

Failure to submit the plans on time carry a penalty of $500 a day.

In addition, any breach of the emergency plan during an outage can result in fines of $500,000 to $5 million.

DiNatale said Unitil was neither prepared, responsive nor accessible during the storm.

“This Legislation will address some of the glaring deficiencies I have cited,” said DiNatale, who added that he only regret was that he could not apply the law “ex post facto.”

Rep. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, chairman of the Committee on Utilities, Telecommunications and Energy, said the bill “basically holds public utilities accountable.”

“If they don’t perform, we can step in and reorganize the company. But it’s not something we want to be doing,” Finegold said.

The failure of a utility company to carry out an order from the DPU can result in fines of not more than $1 million.

Finegold said the committee looked at ways to possibly revoke a company’s franchise license to operate, but he said it would be impossible to force another utility to buy that company and take over their territory.