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Chicago Utility Customers Outraged

August 25, 1999

CHICAGO (AP) _ What happens when you flip the light switch? In Chicago these days, you can’t be too sure.

A series of blackouts has outraged residents and businesses, nearly spoiled frozen plant and animal tissue at the distinguished Field Museum of Natural History, and made Commonwealth Edison a target for politicians and consumer groups.

``I was actually giving them the benefit of the doubt till the last week or so when everything went out downtown. Then I totally lost faith,″ said Natalie Smith, co-owner of Langtree Salon on the North Side.

Her business lost power in July’s heat wave just before her last two customers of the day arrived. ``This one person came in and I was like, `The wax is still hot,′ so I took her up front and waxed her eyebrows by the window,″ Ms. Smith said.

ComEd, which serves about 3.4 million customers in northern Illinois, has acknowledged the problems, apologized and said it will spend about $3 billion to improve its system.

The utility said some of the power failures may have been caused by Bakelite, an early ``wonder plastic″ that was used to seal joints in ComEd’s underground cables in the 1950s. Some of the Bakelite has become porous, allowing moisture in and causing short circuits, ComEd said.

Despite ComEd’s promises to do better, many are unconvinced.

``Everyone recognizes the system stinks. The company has to completely rebuild its infrastructure,″ said William Abolt, Chicago’s environment commissioner.

ComEd’s problems have been so chronic that a University of Michigan customer-satisfaction survey of the nation’s 21 largest electric companies has put the utility at or near the bottom every year since 1994.

This summer’s troubles started July 30 with a blackout that left a large slice of Chicago _ about 100,000 customers _ without power on the hottest day of the year, when the mercury hit 104. The utility blamed high demand for electricity because of the extreme heat.

Problems at a substation on Aug. 12 forced ComEd to shut off power to part of the Loop, Chicago’s busiest business district. That led to the forced resignation of the utility’s vice president for transmission and distribution.

Another mechanical problem caused a blackout Sunday that shuttered the Field Museum, imperiling its collection of DNA samples. A spokeswoman said Wednesday the samples appeared to have been saved by staff members who kept them cold with dry ice.

``It’s just not acceptable,″ said Rob Kelter, an attorney with the Citizens Utility Board. ``We’re going to have a few days of 100-degree weather every summer in Chicago.″

Abolt said the problems are technically fixable but it is a matter of whether ComEd can make ``a cultural change″ within the organization and find the will to transform itself.

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