Saturday, August 16, 2003
  WMass fully plugged in

The Republican
Staff writer

Electricity was restored to all Western Massachusetts communities hit by outages by early yesterday, but power company officials remained concerned more blackouts could occur.

Western Massachusetts remains vulnerable to outages because of problems in southwest Connecticut and New York, said power officials. Customers were urged to conserve power.

A major power line failure in southwest Connecticut placed the area under a power watch until further notice, said Stephen G. Whitley, chief operating officer of ISO New England, the Holyoke-based nonprofit agency that controls the New England power grid.

"We don’t anticipate problems in other parts of New England," Whitley said.

However, local outages remain possible until transmission grids are stabilized in Connecticut and New York, said Western Massachusetts Electric Co. spokeswoman Nancy F. Creed.

"Because power is constantly moving back from Connecticut to Massachusetts and New York to Massachusetts, it is something we will have to continue to monitor," Creed said.

More than 20,000 customers in Western Massachusetts lost power when the largest blackout in American history occurred at 4:11 p.m. Thursday, creating disruptions from New England to Detroit and Canada.

Nearly all local outages were suffered by Western Massachusetts Electric Co. customers. All
had power restored by late Thursday apart from 2,500 in the Six Corners neighborhood of Springfield, where power was restored at 4:05 a.m. yesterday.

Affected areas were Springfield, where 13,000 customers lost power; Pittsfield, with 6,000; Richmond in the Berkshires, with 360; and several other communities where less than 100 customers were blacked out. Western Massachusetts Electric Co. serves more than 200,000 customers in 59 communities.

Springfield’s Indian Orchard neighborhood was the easternmost area affected in Massachusetts, according to local power companies.

Massachusetts Electric Co. reported "isolated, momentary outages" in Western Massachusetts, where the company services 89,000 customers in communities including Northampton, East Longmeadow, Wilbraham, Hampden and Belchertown.

Hampden police said several short outages were reported.

In Westfield, 97 customers on Shaker Road and Ridgecrest Circle lost power Thursday, but the outages were not the result of the larger blackout. Transformer and circuit overloads caused those problems, said
Westfield Gas and Electric spokeswoman Lauren C. Wright.

A squirrel shorting out a power line caused 37 customers on Putnam Drive to be without power for 43 minutes beginning at 7:30 a.m., Wright said.

In Holyoke, 14 customers on Lindberg and Madison avenues lost power Thursday for two hours starting about 4:30 p.m., but the cause of that problem has not been determined, said Holyoke Gas and Electric manager James M. Lavelle.

Lavelle credited ISO New England for saving the region from the widespread blackouts experienced by areas like New York and Detroit.

"I think ISO New England managed it as good as it could have been managed," he said.

The agency also was praised by Richard Lord, president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, who said the grid company saved mostof New England from the blackout.

New England lost 2,500 megawatts of electricity, compared to the nearly 25,000 megawatts lost
in New York and 21,000 megawatts lost in Ontario.

"You had a strong part of our system that held together and a weak part of our system that didn’t hold together," Whitley said.

Power distribution is "an incredibly delicate balancing act," said Kevin Clements, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. That means when power is lost in one spot, facilities throughout the grid have to quickly drop their power to a lower level to equalize or transmission lines become overloaded, triggering further failures, he said.

So when the failure roiled through New York’s power grid, ISO New England pulled generating plants off line to balance the load and cut its connections with the New York grid. The regional drop then created instability in local distribution systems, said Creed.

"Within our substations, we have frequency relays that monitor instability and automatically shut down if they detect an imbalance," she said. "That’s what happened in Pittsfield and Springfield."

Clements and Whitley said they doubted that a failed attempt last year to merge the operations of the New York and New England power grid would have changed what happened Thursday.

Whitley noted his agency’s reports identifying weaknesses in New England transmission systems, with southwest Connecticut and northwest Vermont among areas needing improvement. The blackouts were not related to power generation, but lack of power transmission, he said.

The blackouts occurred on the fourth of five consecutive days with temperatures above 90 degrees, according to the weather station at The Republican in downtown Springfield.

At a Statehouse press conference yesterday Gov. W. Mitt Romney responded to concerns he had minimized problems in Western Massachusetts during a Thursday press conference.

Romney said he called mayors in the region and the chief executive officer of Western Massachusetts Electric Co.

"Unlike what we saw across the nation, with people having to walk long distances home (and) people caught on elevators the extent of the power interruptions in Western Massachusetts seemed to have limited duration and less of a dramatic impact," Romney said.

Springfield Mayor Michael J. Albano yesterday praised Romney’s response Thursday. The relationship between Albano and Romney has been strained because of the governor’s January emergency cuts in local aid that prompted layoffs of city police officers and firefighters.

Romney was "on top of the situation," Albano said. "I appreciated the call. I really did. He said, 'If there’s anything you need, let me know.' "

Romney yesterday named Paul G. Alfonso as the new chairman of the state Department of Telecommunications and Energy, which regulates the utility industry.

Staff writer Dan Ring and the Associated Press contributed to this story. Bill Zajac can be reached at 

Friday, August 15, 2003
  Due to technical issues resulting from the blackout, is down temporarily. Our e-mail server is down as well. If you need to reach us, please dial our main number at (413) 733-2000.

Below are some of the top stories from today's Republican.

Until we fix the equipment problems, we will be updating local stories through this weblog. Thank you for your patience.

  20,000 affected in region

By Michael McAuliffe
The Republican

Nearly 20,000 Western Massachusetts Electric Co. customers found
themselves without power yesterday - and many of those were expected
to be in the same situation this morning - as the region did not
escape the massive outage that struck New York City and other major
cities in the United States and Canada.

The ripple effect from an undetermined problem within a transmission
line resulted in company substations in Springfield and Pittsfield
shutting down between 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., leaving more than 13,000
customers in the Sixteen Acres, Indian Orchard, Six Corners and the
Boston Road neighborhoods of Springfield without power.

More than 6,000 customers in Pittsfield were also affected, while
fewer than 300 customers in other communities served by the company
were victims of the blackout.

Shortly after 8 p.m. power had been restored to almost 15,000
customers, but company spokeswoman Nancy F. Creed said a minimum of
about 2,500 customers in Six Corners would still be without power at
least overnight.

The company serves more than 200,000 customers in 59 communities.
The Boston area appeared to have escaped the blackout, a spokesman
for power provider NStar said.

Creed said the problem was brought to this region by a transmission
line from New York state. It moved through distribution lines until
the substations shut down automatically when equipment detected
there was an abnormal flow of energy.

"While it's an inconvenience, the system worked exactly like it's
supposed to," Creed said.

Businesses in Springfield quickly closed shop when the lights went

Power was lost at the Eastfield Mall at shortly before 5 p.m., and
customers were moved from stores to common areas in the mall.

"It went black at once," said marketing manager Sabrina Wilson.
At Breckwood Shoppes, at Wilbraham Road and Breckwood Boulevard, all
10 businesses shut their doors.

"We can't even pour sodas," Peter Andron, a manager at Sophia's
Pizza, said about 40 minutes after power was lost. "There's nothing
we can do but wait it out."

Meanwhile, pharmacists at nearby Louis & Clark Drugs waited at the
door for customers coming to fill prescriptions.

"We're closed to everyone but people who need medicine," said
Barbara Wright, a supervisor.

Wright said some customers in the store became worried that the
outage could be connected to terrorist activity.

"A customer was on the phone with someone in New York and they said
they had lost power, too," Wright said. "People weren't panicking
but they definitely wanted to know what was going on."

At Six Flags New England in Agawam, Kim Hicks got stuck on a roller

"We were on the Cyclone roller coaster when the power went out," she
said. "Luckily it was where it was flat, thank God, not up on top.
We sat there about 20 minutes and they finally came to walk us off."
The park regained power a short time later.

ISO-New England is a Holyoke-based agency that distributes power to
the six-state region.

The New England grid of electric lines acts like a unit. Although it
is connected to the grids of Canada to the north and New York to the
west, the electricity that power plants in New England produce
largely stays in New England. When New York needs power and New
England has it to spare, electricity is sent to New York via
connecting lines.

In this way, when problems occur in one grid, those around it can
continue unaffected, although problems may arise where connections
between the grids occur.

There are six major ISOs - which stands for independent system
operators - in the United States, including those serving New
England and New York.

In 2002, a proposal to connect the New York grid with the New
England grid and to operate them as a unit served by a single ISO
was considered. However, a report found that New England customers
would likely suffer financially during the changeover, and interest
in the proposal in New England faded.

Staff writers Azell Murphy Cavaan and Stan Freeman, and wire
reports, contributed to this report.

Michael McAuliffe can be reached at 
  Candidates overestimate authority

By Bea O'Quinn Dewberry
The Republican

SPRINGFIELD - How much control does the city's top official have
over the Police Department?

Not much, unless you ask the mayoral candidates, State Sen. Linda J.
Melconian and former three-term Mayor Charles V. Ryan Jr.
Both have voiced strong opinions this week about their plans, if
elected, for the Police Department, the Police Commission, and even
Chief Paula C. Meara's job.

Police Commission Chairman Florentino Colon said that the mayor can
question the actions of the commission and the police chief, and can
make suggestions on how issues should be addressed. "But that's
about it," he said.

While both candidates said they recognize that the Civil Service
selection process is used to hire a chief, Melconian said on a radio
broadcast this week that she had not determined who would be "my
chief" if she is elected.

Meara, a Civil Service employee, said she cannot be fired at the
whim of the mayor.

"This is a long-term job; they can't get rid of me like that," she

Under Civil Service law, removal of the chief requires legal cause,
subject to evidence, charges, and comprehensive hearings.

Meara was named chief in 1996, but the battle over her position
lasted for seven years until last January. At that time, five senior
officers who filed suit claiming that the city's selection process
was faulty dropped the case.

According to Melconian, her reference to "my chief" may have been a
slip of the tongue. She said she meant the Police Commission, and
whether to retain its current members.

The mayor can appoint the five-member commission, whose powers
include hiring and firing.

Ryan said this week that he would oversee operations of the
department if he thought it was necessary. Despite criticism that
followed, Ryan said he stands by his words.

He said he would get more involved in police operations if Deputy
Chiefs William J. Fitchett and Elmer J. McMahon continued to be
"under-utilized" by the chief.

Fitchett and McMahon were among those who filed suit after Meara was
appointed. In response to Ryan's comments earlier, Meara said she
works closely with the two deputy chiefs.

Ryan said he will closely monitor critical decisions made by the
chief regarding the deployment of officers, which he said should be
concentrated to squads in high-crime areas and to the Narcotics

Meara, a 30-year veteran of the Police Department, said, "I had no
interest in getting in the middle of the mayoral race." 
  City officials wrestle with crime

By Peter Goonan
The Republican

SPRINGFIELD - City Council President Daniel D. Kelly yesterday
suggested the Police Department implement a Street Crimes Unit and
fill three sergeant vacancies, among ideas aimed at aiding the
crackdown on crime.

Kelly discussed his proposals following a 90-minute closed-door
meeting between city councilors and Police Chief Paula C. Meara. The
councilors called for the meeting to discuss police deployment in
Springfield due to layoffs of police and rising crime statistics.

Kelly proposed that a Street Crimes Unit would consist of at least
nine officers and one sergeant, working a 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift.
The unit would target high crime areas and focus on guns, gangs and
drugs, he said.

Meara said she does not have enough police to dedicate officers to a
Street Crimes Unit.

Meara, however, said she will seek approval to fill the sergeant
vacancies. Kelly said the police budget already has funds set aside
for the sergeants, due to vacancies, and believes three patrolmen
could be promoted to sergeant and then the three patrolmen vacancies
could be filed.

Mayor Michael J. Albano said last night that he does not intend to
make any promotions within the Police Department, due to severe
budget constraints and a citywide wage freeze.

City councilors and Meara said they were pleased with last night's
discussion. Meara said the councilors understood the difficulties
faced by the under-staffed department.

The issue of deployment was raised this week by mayoral candidate
Charles V. Ryan Jr., who said Meara was failing to solicit input on
the matter from two deputy chiefs. Meara said she was working
closing with Deputy Chiefs Elmer J. McMahon and William J. Fitchett.
State police have pledged to provide more personnel and resources to
Springfield during the next three months in response to concerns
about an increase in gun incidents and other crime.

The Police Department provided councilors with a breakdown of money
owed to the department by various organizations that hire extra-duty

Of the amount, a total of $173,522 has been owed to the department
for more than 120 days, including $80,780 owed by Spirit of
Springfield, according to the breakdown. President Judith A. Matt
could not be reached for comment last night. Councilors said they
will call for a meeting to determine what is being done to collect
the money.

Peter Goonan can be reached at 
  UMass researchers unearth hot stuff

By Stan Freeman
The Republican

AMHERST - With implications for when life on Earth began and where
it might exist on other planets, researchers at the University of
Massachusetts have found that living things can survive and thrive
at higher temperatures than previously thought.

Small, heat-loving microbes collected from the depths of the Pacific
Ocean, in a spot where the water is superheated by molten rock, were
found to survive at a temperature of 266 F, more than 30 degrees
higher than what had been thought to be the upper limit of survival
for any organism.

In fact, the microbes could still reproduce at 250 F.
The finding by UMass microbiologist Derek R. Lovley and postdoctoral
researcher Kazem Kashefi, detailed in today's issue of Science,
could mean that life evolved earlier in Earth's history than had
been thought.

Formed about 4.6 billion years ago, the planet began as a hot ball
that gradually and steadily cooled, allowing life to develop. The
earliest evidence of life on Earth dates back about 3.85 billion

"Early Earth was a lot hotter than now, and life probably evolved at
very high temperatures," said Lovley this week. "These results
expand the known window in which life can exist."

The new finding also expands the range of places where life can
exist on this planet and others. Only in recent decades have
scientists recognized how much life exists below the Earth's
surface, where temperatures are hotter the deeper one goes.

"In terms of biomass, the total amount of life below the Earth's
surface is greater than what we see on the surface," he said. "If
life can thrive at higher temperatures, then that's just that much
deeper in the Earth life can exist, so it's likely that the
below-surface biomass is even greater than we previously suspected."

Armed with this new finding, and knowing the temperature of
different parts of other planets will also allow researchers to
better anticipate where life can be found on those planets, Lovley

The newly discovered microbe, called "strain 121" by the
researchers, was subjected to high temperatures in an autoclave, a
device used to sterilize medical instruments.

"If we threw this organism in a pot of boiling water, it would be
happy," he said.

The finding may also have implications for sterilizing processes,
including those for medical instruments and canned foods. A
temperature of 250 F had been considered the standard for

"Our finding changes the concept of adequate heat for sterilization
that has been in place for more than 100 years," Lovley said.

However, the threat from such heat-loving organisms is miniscule.
"We have to actually grow it in ovens to make it grow its best," he
said. "Organisms that grow in extreme temperatures probably won't
grow at body temperature or room temperature."

The researchers' work was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Stan Freeman can be reached at 
  Fewer sign up for retirement

By Patrick Johnson
The Republican

The state Retirement Board anticipates employee participation in an
early retirement incentive program by the Sept. 1 deadline will be
at least 30 percent below original projections, a retirement
official said yesterday.

Statewide, some 1,600 employees have filed paperwork to retire,
including some 400 higher education employees, said Nicola Favorito,
executive director of the state Retirement Board.

Based on interest so far, Favorito said he anticipates another 400
in the state, or around 2,000 people, will apply by the Sept. 1

When the plan was enacted in July, state officials projected it
would attract 3,000 to 3,500 employees.

The Legislature overrode a veto from Gov. W. Mitt Romney to approve
the retirement package, calling it a more human alternative to

Romney opposed early retirement because of its impact on the pension

The state last offered early retirement a year ago, and 4,587
employees accepted it, making it the largest single employee
departure in state history.

He said the interval between the two retirement programs may play a
role in the lower-than-expected interest this time around.

Rep. Robert M. Koczera, D-New Bedford, co-chairman of the
Legislature's Committee on Public Service, said even though the
numbers may come in lower than what was projected, the retirement
plan was still worthwhile.

"There will still be significant payroll savings at the end of '04,"
he said. "Does it mean a savings to the bottom line? Yes."

Last year, 23 percent of the eligible 19,000 employees took early
retirement, he said.

If the participation rate this year is half of last year, he said,
it would mean 1,700 people off the active payroll without layoffs.

The retirement date for most employees is Oct. 1, although higher
education employees has an extension of Dec. 31. Anyone who applies
can withdraw their application up until the last day of employment.

If the participation rate falls below expectations, so will the
amount in estimated savings, Favorito said
The state had projected 3,500 retirements would translate into a
gross savings of $190 million in salaries, Favorito said.

Any savings by the state in salaries would be lessened by increased
pay-outs in pensions "down the road," and by the cost of hiring

Most departments are limited to replacing 20 percent of the
retirement vacancies, he said.

Although new employees start at a lower salary, the costs for health
insurance and other benefits remain the same, he said.

In June of 2002, 439 Amherst employees, including 71 faculty,
retired as part of an earlier version of a similar early retirement

UMass-Amherst still expects to see 200 to 300 people take the early
retirement offer, although the office of human resources did not
have a number for how many have applied, said campus spokesman
Patrick J. Callahan.

Interest in the program has been steady since the application period
opened last month, he said.

Early retirement plays a key part, along with spending cuts and
layoffs in Chancellor John V. Lombardi's efforts to cope with a $41
million funding shortfall. Lombardi is banking on early retirements
saving $2.7 million.

Westfield State College has had 15 to 20 employees file their
papers, said campus spokeswoman Jeanne Julian. Last year, 34
employees retired.

Holyoke Community College spokeswoman Anne Keyser said 14 employees
have applied, compared to 20 who retired last year.

Patrick Johnson can be reached at is down temporarily

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