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As outages increase, SWEPCO steps up vegetation program

A power outage two weeks ago left 85,000 Northeast Texas electric customers in the dark and temporarily crippled Eastman Chemical Co.’s plant outside Longview. The culprit? AEP Southwestern Electric Power Co. officials say it was vegetation that came into contact with power lines, with heat and high power usage factoring in as well.

It’s a theme found regularly in documents detailing penalties that SWEPCO has agreed to pay the state for violations of its reliability standards in recent years. It’s also an issue that SWEPCO Communications Director Carey Sullivan said the company is working to address with more money and an increased focus on vegetation management.

“The number of outages has increased in 2019, and it’s due to two factors,” Sullivan said. “The first is the number of minor storms we’ve had, and the second is excessive rainfall.”

SWEPCO logged six minor storms and two major storms in 2018, Sullivan said. The first six months of 2019 saw six minor storms and three major storms. Another storm this weekend left a couple of thousand customers in this area without power. Minor storms are defined as outages that last two to three days, according to SWEPCO.

Some outages can’t be prevented, Sullivan said. The ground gets saturated when there’s been excessive rainfall. When strong winds come through, trees fall and often take power lines with them. Rain also means more vegetation growth.

“We’re doing all we can do to make our tree trimming dollars go farther,” Sullivan said, adding that SWEPCO’s tree trimming budget for distribution lines that serve people’s homes and businesses in Texas is $10 million a year — up $2 million from 2016.

On Aug. 18, as Longview residents watched power voltage fluctuate through lights that dimmed and brightened repeatedly, plumes of smoke billowed from Eastman’s plant on the outskirts of Longview.

“The power outage forced us to have an unplanned shutdown and our equipment responded as designed under these circumstances,” Eastman spokeswoman Kristin Parker said in an email. “The flaring produced black smoke due to the loss of steam during the power interruption. During the shutdown, the flares safely controlled process materials but may have emitted certain materials in excess of the levels that require us to provide the (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) and the National Response Center notice.

“It is a normal procedure to contact regulatory agencies when flaring during a shutdown. We do not believe employees at our site, nearby neighbors or the surrounding community were in any danger from these flaring activities.”

She said plant operations restarted within five days.

“We did pull the start date forward of the planned turnaround of our hydrocarbon cracking plant 4 (HCC-4) as a result of the power interruption, and we also encountered some issues that increased the scope and duration of work we had originally planned. As you might expect, the increased scope and duration of the HCC-4 turnaround will come with some costs, but we do not have that information to share at this time,” Parker said.

She also said the company is in contact with SWEPCO to share information about what happened and “determine corrective action to prevent this from happening at our site in the future.”

Sullivan said the incident showed more needs to be done to address vegetation management.

“We not only trimmed trees away from the power lines that were involved in that outage on the 18th, we’re looking to get more dollars to trim transmission rights of way to prevent it from happening,” she said.

“We have allocated an extra $3 million for trimming, managing vegetation along transmission lines in Texas,” she said later. “We’re bringing crews in, and we plan to do some vegetation management along 325 miles of line that SWEPCO has.”

While she said some of this involves rearranging money the company already has, the additional work likely will affect future rates increases the company requests from the state’s Public Utility Commission, along with increasing health insurance, wage and equipment costs.

To stretch tree trimming dollars, the company is changing tree trimming specifications, so that when possible a mechanical device can be used to trim trees and keep the canopy — instead of requiring someone to climb the tree to get branches at the top.

“By doing it mechanically, we’ll be able to get more done with the same amount of dollars,” Sullivan said.

Tree-trimming benefits

Data support tree-trimming, she said. Tree-related outages decrease by more than 80 percent when a circuit — a power line — is trimmed from end to end. She pointed to a project to trim vegetation on the entire length of one power line that runs between Texas and Louisiana. It’s a project SWEPCO noted in a settlement agreement reached this month with state regulators for violations in 2018 of state reliability standards.

One state measurement shows SWEPCO’s service in Texas became less reliable between 2016 and 2018, although the resulting state enforcement penalties against SWEPCO aren’t that unusual for electric providers. It’s common for electric utilities to be fined, with some incurring penalties much greater than SWEPCO’s, the Public Utility Commission reported. However, the agency did not provide more information this past week about those penalties.

Since 2015, SWEPCO has agreed to pay increasing fines for growing violations of state reliability standards related to the duration of power outages, to the tune of $142,000 for the 2013 to 2018 service years. (For perspective, SWEPCO’s parent company, AEP, reported about $1.9 billion in net income in 2018.)

Separate state standards measure reliability in terms of the average number of service interruptions and average duration of those outages, as well as whether specific parts of the system regularly experience above average service disruptions. The Public Utility Commission may penalize utilities up to $25,000 per violation, each time a violation occurs, with consideration given to the seriousness of the violation; potential hazards to health, safety or economic welfare of the public; economic harm to property or to the environment as a result of the violation; history of previous violations and other measures.

Missed targets

The News-Journal reviewed settlement agreements SWEPCO has made for each service year from 2013 to 2018 (with actual settlement agreements made in each of the following years). That review shows that since 2014, SWEPCO has exceeded the standard the state sets for its System Average Interruption Duration Index by more than the allowed 5 percent each year — 69.3 percent in 2018, 31.1 percent in 2017, 26.2 percent in 2016, 50.2 percent in 2015 and 24.1 percent in 2014.

A systemwide violation of that index was not recorded in 2013. Sullivan said those measurements do not consider outages from major storms.

She said the company knows it is missing its reliability targets, as illustrated in the steps the company has outlined in the agreements with the utility commission.

“We’re working on our grid modernization program,” she said, and on storm-hardening the system — changing out power poles with taller or thicker poles, for instance. Starting in fall 2020, SWEPCO plans to invest $20 million in replacing wooden poles with steel poles and installing new power lines along a 14-mile line between Marshall and Jefferson.

Modernization includes the installation of smart switches that help decrease the duration of outages by talking to each other and automatically rerouting power as necessary to isolate problems.

“We call it self-healing,” Sullivan said.

Also, in 2018, the company inspected 32,000 poles and replaced 2,000 of them. This year, the company expects to complete inspections of more than 22,000 poles, with 1,050 poles replaced and more work planned. Sullivan said monthly reliability meetings also address “hot-spotting” — spot problem areas that need to be addressed.

While the company might have logged violations of state standards, SWEPCO’s reliability is not something Wayne Mansfield, head of Longview Economic Development Corp., has heard complaints about from local businesses.

“Yes, electric power for companies is absolutely vital,” he said. “In fact, oftentimes with companies we’re recruiting, the ability to provide redundant power is at the top of the list ... They want 100 percent power, 100 percent of the time. Companies also understand that outages do occur.

“We work with SWEPCO quite a bit both from the economic development side and from the construction side,” Mansfield continued, and the people LEDCO works with are “top notch,” “very helpful.” “They’re a great partner with us. They have to — any utility provider has to be. Those are critical elements for recruiting companies here.”

Family of woman known only as Lavender Doe for 13 years to hold memorials in Longview

Family members of a woman once known only as Lavender Doe are planning a trip from Florida to Longview this week to finally put their long-lost sister to rest. They also want to thank a community that embraced Dana Lynn Dodd long before learning the murdered woman’s name.

Dodd was 21 when last seen on parking lot video selling magazine subscriptions at the Fourth Street Walmart in Longview. It took 13 years for that image to be confirmed as Dodd, whose identity was a mystery when her body was found in October 2006 by two men on an oil lease off Fritz Swanson Road, facedown on a burning woodpile.

“We had been looking for her for right around 13 years,” Dodd’s sister, Amanda Gadd, said Friday from Jacksonville, Florida, which Dodd left as a teen with a boyfriend in October 2000.

The family later heard that man died from a drug overdose in Ohio, but they had no idea they needed to be searching for their half sister in East Texas.

They learned her fate this past October when the California-based DNA Doe Project notified Gadd and her brother, John Dodd, that the sister with whom they share a father might be Lavender Doe, identity unknown, who is buried in Longview’s White Cemetery (although a grave marker in the cemetery identifies her as “Jane Doe.”)

“We knew immediately it was her,” said Gadd, 44, adding that full confirmation came Jan. 29.

Two days after that, Gadd said, her mother, whom Dodd called her own mother, passed away knowing her step-daughter had been found.

“The hardest thing was my mom, because she raised her,” Gadd said. “(Dodd) looked up to her, because she knew she loved her.”

Their shared father was “not involved” in Dodd’s life, and her biological mother died 15 years ago, Gadd said.

But Dodd’s siblings, who included another older sister, actively searched for her through the years.

“We always wished she would pick up the phone and call us, because she knew that we loved her,” she said.

Gadd, her husband and brother and a nephew will fly to Texas this week to hold private and public graveside services Friday and Saturday for their long-missing family member.

The family ceremony Friday is timed with what would have been Dodd’s 34th birthday.

Gadd said she hopes the community will turn out for the 11 a.m. Saturday memorial so the family can express its gratitude.

“We know a lot of people in town took care of her and embraced her and loved her,” Gadd said. “And we want the public to come out and embrace her as Dana instead of Lavender Doe or Jane Doe.”

The secular public service will be informal and sincere, she said. A headstone will be set to replace Dodd’s anonymous marker.

“We’re just going to speak, and I want to tell everybody thank you for being there for her and keeping her in their thoughts,” Gadd said. “That’s what we take comfort in, is knowing she was loved. People took her in and loved her. OK, she wasn’t with us, but people in Longview took her in as one of their own.”

Gadd said the family hopes to release 13 butterflies at the public service, one for each year they searched for their missing sister.

They will leave her in Longview.

“We kind of made the decision as a family that that’s where she belongs,” Gadd said. “We plan on coming out once or twice a year to visit with her.”

They also plan to attend the murder trial of Joseph Wayne Burnette, whom authorities say has confessed to killing Dodd and Felisha Pearson.

The 28-year-old Pearson was found slain in July 2018 in Gregg County, and Burnette has been jailed since on $2.5 million bond. He is under indictment for the deaths of both women, along with a charge of failing to register as a sex offender.

That last charge led Gregg County authorities to Burnette and was the subject of the warrant for his arrest.

“We’ll be there every day of the trial,” Gadd said, adding they plan to meet with District Attorney Tom Watson on Friday.

Watson said Friday that investigators continue to work the case and that no new information is publicly available. A trial date has not been set.

Gadd said the family will be flying out of Orlando, Florida. And by Saturday afternoon, it appeared those plans were secure with models of Hurricane Dorian pointing to a northeast turn as it approached the state.

At least 5 dead in West Texas shooting after traffic stop

AUSTIN — At least five people were dead in West Texas after a man who was stopped by state troopers when his vehicle failed to signal a left turn opened fire and fled, shooting more than 20 people before he was killed by officers outside a movie theater, authorities said Saturday. Three law enforcement officers were among the injured.

The shooting began with an interstate traffic stop in the heart of Texas oil country where gunfire was exchanged with police, setting off a chaotic afternoon during which the suspect hijacked a U.S. Postal Service vehicle and began firing at random in the area of Odessa and Midland, hitting multiple people. Cell phone video showed people running out of a movie theater, and as Odessa television station KOSA aired breaking developments on live TV, their broadcast was interrupted by police telling them they had to clear the area.

Police initially reported that there could be more than one shooter, but Odessa Police Chief Michael Gerke later said there was only one.

“Once this individual was taken out of the picture, there have been no more victims,” Gerke said.

Gerke described the suspect as a white male in his 30s. He did not name him or a motive but said he has some idea who the gunman is.

The terrifying chain of events began when Texas state troopers tried pulling over a gold car mid-Saturday afternoon on Interstate 20 for failing to signal a left turn, Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Katherine Cesinger said. Before the vehicle came to a complete stop, the driver “pointed a rifle toward the rear window of his car and fired several shots” toward the patrol car stopping him. The gunshots struck one of two troopers inside the patrol car, Cesinger said, after which the gunman fled “and continued shooting innocent people,” including two police officers.

Gerke said that in addition to the injured officers, there were at least 21 civilian shooting victims. He said at least five people died. He did not say whether the shooter was included among those five dead, and it was not clear whether he was including the five dead among the at least 21 civilian shooting victims.

The shooting comes just four weeks after a gunman in the Texas border city of El Paso killed 22 people after opening fire at a Walmart. Gov. Greg Abbott this week held two meetings with lawmakers about how to prevent mass more shootings in Texas. He said he would visit the area today.

The West Texas shooting Saturday brings the number of mass killings in the U.S. this year to 25, matching the number in all of 2018, according to The AP/USATODAY/Northeastern University mass murder database. The number of victims also has reached the level reached in all of last year at either 139 or 140 depending on whether the West Texas suspect was one of the five police say are dead.

Seven people remained in critical condition at one hospital hours after the West Texas shooting, said Russell Tippin, CEO of Medical Center Hospital in Odessa. He said a child younger than 2 was also transported to another hospital. He also said one person the hospital had received had died, although it was unclear if that victim was among the five dead that Gerke reported.

Tippin said 13 shooting victims were being treated at the hospital Saturday evening, but he did not give their conditions or other information about the victims. Social workers and professional counselors are at the hospital to provide support to the families of shooting victims, Tippin said. He also said the hospital has been locked down for that safety of the staff and patients.

“Right now the hospital is stable, it’s secure,” Tippin said.

Dustin Fawcett was sitting in his truck at a Starbucks in Odessa when he heard at least six gunshots ring out less than 50 yards behind him.

At first, he thought it might have been a tire blowing but he heard more shots and spotted a white sedan with a passenger window that had been shattered. That’s when he thought, “Oh man, this is a shooting.”

Fawcett, 28, an Odessa transportation consultant, “got out to make sure everyone was safe” but found that no one had been struck by the gunfire nearby. He said a little girl was bleeding, but she hadn’t been shot, and that he found out she was grazed in the face.

Fawcett said authorities responded quickly and when police pulled out their rifles and vests he knew that “this is not a drive-by. This is something else, this is something bigger.”

Vice President Mike Pence said following the shooting that President Donald Trump and his administration “remain absolutely determined” to work with leaders in both parties in Congress to take such steps “so we can address and confront this scourge of mass atrocities in our country.”

Pence said Trump has deployed the federal government in response to the shootings. He says Trump has spoken to the attorney general and that the FBI is already assisting local law enforcement.

Trump has offered contradictory messages in reacting to recent mass shootings. Days after the El Paso and Ohio shootings he said he was eager to implement “very meaningful background checks” and told reporters there was “tremendous support” for action. He later backed away from those changes, saying the current system of background checks was “very, very strong.”

Most recently, Trump has called for greater attention to mental health, saying that new facilities are needed for the mentally ill as a way to reduce mass shootings. However, some mental health professionals say such thinking is outdated, that linking mental illness to violence is wrong, and that the impact of more treatment would be helpful overall but would have a minor impact on gun violence.