People who raise safety concerns regarding public infrastructure are often seen as alarmists. Ed Hirs, a University of Houston Energy Fellow, pointed out in 2013 that self-regulation was bound to fail. The state of Texas allowed a group of self-interested parties — energy companies — to shape safety and economic rules which caused the massive blackouts and drained bank accounts. This is a parable about the foolishness of believing corporations will put the community’s needs ahead of their own.
It might be easy for Vermonters to think this is a regional problem confined to the south, which tends to overestimate the capacity of private entities to safeguard the public good. Sadly, this sort of deference lives in our backyard. The Marshfield Dam, owned and operated by Green Mountain Power, comes to mind. GMP is an exemplar amongst utilities in promoting best practices and sound energy goals. However, the present regulatory framework has forced them to choose the bottom line over the public interest.
GMP will point out, in regards to the Marshfield Dam, they have adhered to the sanctioned safety regimes and have paid all taxes due. Furthermore, they have poured millions of dollars into upgrades at the facility. All that is true, but all the power companies in Texas had the same arguments in defending the status quo.
This, despite an actual event demonstrating a need for new practices. A 2011 winter storm knocked out more than 200 Texas power plants. Strangely, a 2011 storm here in Vermont shed light on deficiencies in emergency procedures at the Marshfield Dam. In both cases, the safety protocols were improved — but to what standard? Behind the facade of “everything’s OK” are some unsettling truths. Both the town of Marshfield and Plainfield subsidize GMP by providing their volunteer fire departments with almost no direct funding to the towns.
This shifting of cost extends to the aftermath, as well. In plain terms: a large multimillion-dollar corporation, in charge of an industrial scale facility with the potential to wreak havoc on small municipalities downstream, shifts all the damage expense to those entities. Note: The Texas governor reminded the public that all the water damage — due to the power failure — is a local responsibility.
Are the safety protocols, presently in place, adequate? There has been new dam safety legislation plus the millions spent on upgrades. True, but there is no insurance requirement to indemnify those in harm’s way. There’s the rub.
Is it financially worth it for the owner to have a state-of-the-art safety system? What happens in the unlikely event of a dam breach? According to the experts, a huge swath of Route 2 would be wiped out along with the lion’s share of downtown Marshfield and Plainfield. Who pays? I was assured by a committee Legislature that those responsible will pay the cost.
Sounds reassuring except when you consider the legal nature of responsibility. If a company complies with all the current safety rules, the taxpayer is liable for a majority of the damage repairs. Besides, I have been told, these are academic questions as there hasn’t been a real problem at the dam since it was built nearly 90 years ago. That assumption is predicated on the belief the weather will be consistent with the past and that infrastructure maintenance is a matter of past practices The citizens of Texas are discovering this is a dubious proposition.
Times have changed. GMP should be obligated to pay the full share of first responder costs in addition to buying insurance to protect those downstream. Am I an alarmist? People spent years saying the same thing about Mr. Hirs — until last week.
Bram Towbin lives in Plainfield.