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WMECO: underground electrical system reliable

Greenfield Main Street after a snow storm.
Recorder file photo/Franz

Greenfield Main Street after a snow storm. Recorder file photo/Franz

GREENFIELD — Greenfield’s downtown is powered by an underground electrical system and while one Western Massachusetts Electric Co. union officer worries what that means if the electric company moves its Greenfield service center to Hadley, the mayor says for now he’s not worried.

While WMECO continues to plan for the move, town councilors were told recently the utility is more concerned about savings than safety as seen by how the company will handle an emergencies if something happens to the town’s underground electrical system.

Mayor William Martin said he was one of those town officials worried until WMECO guaranteed there wouldn’t be any problems.

“I’m not concerned at all, now,” said Martin. “WMECO has guaranteed service and I can only believe that and be comfortable with it until the company proves differently. They’re the experts. We have to have some trust.”

Martin said he believes the state would step in if WMECO didn’t stand by its guarantees of a safe and reliable underground electrical system, as well as continued and good customer service to those in Franklin County, and that the state would fine the company if it did not do what it is required by law.

“The state has done it in the past,” he said.

In recent years, the two WMECO employees who were responsible for the underground system, along with other duties, left those positions and they were not replaced, said William Freeman, assistant business agent for the Local 455 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a current WMECO line worker.

Freeman told town officials recently that he is concerned that no one will be working out of the Greenfield service center if there should ever be a problem underground.

He said it concerns him that someone may have to travel from Hadley or Springfield to deal with the problem and said a lot could happen in that time.

Priscilla Ress, spokeswoman for WMECO, said that the move to Hadley will not affect customer service and will “definitely not affect safety,” which would be an issue and major concern if something went wrong with the more than 80-year-old underground electrical system.

“Safety and customer service are our priorities,” said Ress. “We have plenty of line workers who are crossed-trained to handle above-ground and underground problems.”

Ress said if there was ever a problem with the underground electrical system in downtown Greenfield, the power would immediately be shut off by trained line workers going to a nearby substation. She did not want to give the exact location of that substation for safety reasons.

“We have a distributed workforce that is always in the area, so someone would respond as soon as a call came in,” said Ress. “Our response to something like that would be immediate.”

WMECO employees are still hoping to persuade the company to keep its service center in Greenfield open.

Freeman and other employees have asked town and state leaders for help.

“WMECO is a public utility and you have the right to ask the company to stay,” said Freeman last month. “Response times are going to increase and customers will feel the impact.”

Ress said that is not true.

“There’s going to be an increase of at least an hour, and that depends on what part of Franklin County we’re going to,” said Freeman. “All of our Greenfield employees live in Greenfield or Franklin County, so you have to add on the driving time from their homes to pick up their trucks in Hadley and then get back to the county.”

Ress said the company will provide proper coverage. She said the move is still planned for the third quarter of 2014.

Craig Hallstrom, president of WMECO and NSTAR Electric Co., said in a recent letter to the editor that WMECO will work closely with its employees to ensure a smooth transition as it consolidates its service centers.

“WMECO will always put our customers’ safety first,” said Hallstrom. “We’re committed to providing excellent customer service and have proven expertise in keeping the power on during blue-sky days and getting it back on during even the worst storms.”

“And as far as the underground electrical system goes, it is very reliable,” said Ress. “We haven’t had any major problems and it has been there for decades.”

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