Clients of utility face long waits

NStar says restoring power quickly is hard with outages scattered

As a strike by two-thirds of NStar's workers dragged into its eleventh day, customers whose electric service was knocked out by a lingering northeaster were facing waits of 12 hours and longer to get power restored yesterday.

From 1,500 customers without power late Wednesday, the number climbed to 4,000 at dawn yesterday and 5,000 last evening, as the storm continued to sever electric lines. At least 20,000 NStar customers lost service at various times during the storm.

NStar acknowledged that supervisors and managers filling in as linemen and contractors were hard-pressed to restore service quickly. NStar spokesman Michael Durand said the remaining outages ''are largely scattered, each affecting relatively small numbers of our customers."

''It's important to note that this type of outage tends to take longer to restore, regardless of circumstances, because they are more labor-intensive than others that interrupt power to large numbers of customers at one time," Durand said. Crews have to spend more time reconnecting lines to individual houses or streets, a far more arduous process than repairing a single major feeder line that carries electricity for hundreds of homes.

Paul Sagan of Lexington, chief executive of Akamai Technologies Inc., a Cambridge Internet company, said he lost power two nights in a row, and it took NStar 15 hours to finally get the lights back on yesterday afternoon at his home.

''It was certainly very frustrating whatever the reason was," Sagan said last night.

Margaret Metcalf, at her home on Brookdale Road in Roslindale, said the lights ''kept going off and coming back" before staying off most of the night. ''I'm a little angry with the way they're treating us," Metcalf said. ''I think they should work out their problems."

The president of the striking workers' union, Gary P. Sullivan of Local 369 of the Utility Workers Union of America, said he had asked federal mediators to reconvene contract talks that had broken off again Monday.

''We want to get back to work to do this work, instead of walking around with picket signs," Sullivan said. Sign-toting pickets have shadowed and in some cases verbally harassed crews restoring power.

Union leaders said they were concerned that underqualified supervisors could hurt themselves or damage the grid attempting power-line repairs. Don Stirling, a 22-year NStar veteran who represents underground workers in Local 369, said a manhole cover in Brookline Village exploded yesterday hours after a replacement crew had been working in the area.

''I'm now a little bit concerned about what did they do last night, and what kind of situation are we going to be facing when we are back on the job," Stirling said. Caroline Allen, an NStar spokeswoman, said of the Brookline incident, ''We're looking into it, but we think it's an equipment malfunction that could have happened regardless of whether a union worker or a supervisor had been working on that line."

Acknowledging that striking workers -- along with NStar management -- have faced some ire from homeowners and businesses suffering through protracted outages, Sullivan said the union continues to tell NStar customers that ''in the long run, we're doing this for you."

Local 369 says a key issue driving the strike is its demand that NStar commit to preventive maintenance and increased staffing to improve service for the utility's 1.1 million customers. NStar calls the safety concerns a ''smokescreen" masking the union's desire to maintain antiquated work rules that boost members' overtime pay.

Outage figures reported to state regulators showed Mass. Electric Co., the state's biggest utility, which is not affected by the Local 369 strike, was making better progress restoring service. Nearly 80,000 Mass. Electric customers lost power at some point during the storm, but by late yesterday, fewer than 1,600 were still without service.