The organization known as the Juneau People's Power Project (JPPP) describes itself as a "passionate, nonpartisan citizens' coalition drawn together in the aftermath of (the April 16) avalanche," according to its web site.
David Sheakley photo Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho is surrounded by members of the Juneau Peoples Power Project during a rally in May.
About 200 supporters attended the first rally a few weeks ago and the JPPP is hoping to gain more public support when they again march to the capital's steps Saturday at 1 p.m.
The group's message - printed in bold letters on fliers scattered throughout Juneau - is clear: "We won't pay AEL&P."
About 500 Juneau residents have already signed a declaration stating they'll do the same.
Albert Petrarca, 58, a healthcare worker and one of the rally's organizers, said the rally is about economic justice for consumers. Petrarca said local and state government failed its citizens by not pressuring Alaska Electric Light & Power to pay for diesel fuel costs with its profits and instead allowing residents to become the financial victims of a utility monopoly. The $3 million approved for residential aid by the Juneau Assembly in April was taxpayer dollars paying for the utility company's negligence, he said.
"Every level (of government) did nothing ... while people, already strapped by a collapsing economy, struggled," he said. "(Consumers) need to turn their anger into personal and political energy ... and use consumer dollars in a political way. The only way we can do that is to not pay."
Petrarca and other group members blame AEL&P for negligence by not taking preventive measures in the weeks leading up the avalanche, which they believe could have minimized damage to the transmission towers.
The group faults AEL&P for three things: Not monitoring slopes in a high-risk avalanche zone where the towers are located; not setting up diverters; and not insuring the towers.
Petrarca said a rate-payer rebellion would force the 115-year-old utility company into a public relations nightmare by making AEL&P send bills for the entire city to collections - or possibly even turn off power altogether. If that happens, Petrarca says, the government would be "forced to step in."
AEL&P, however, denies accusations that the avalanches could have been prevented and said - public relations disaster or not - its policies on late bills must be followed.
"I absolutely believe there was no negligence at all," said Scott Willis, AEL&P spokesman and vice president. "We operated that project properly." (Detailed explanation from Willis about the accusations are available online at www.capitalcityweekly.com)
Willis said AEL&P would have to collect unpaid balances or else customers' power would eventually have to be shut off.
"I hope people don't do that because we can't continue to provide power to people who won't pay their fair share," he said of residents paying only the pre-energy crisis rates. "People that use that electricity, knowing what it costs, are expected to pay for that."
Senior AEL&P officials have come under fire lately in the media and through blogs by a swarm of outraged consumers, but Willis said he's received more compliments for restoring power seven weeks ahead of schedule than complaints.
AEL&P has operated the Snettisham transmission lines for the past 10 years the same way the federal government oversaw the project the previous 25 years, Willis said, refuting each claim made by the JPPP.
Willis referred to the massive slides as "an act of God." A recent study by avalanche experts suggests an avalanche of such magnitude occurs in the area every 100 to 300 years.
If power is shut off in some households, there is no guarantee government entities will run to the aid of Juneau consumers when power bills are left unpaid.
"I don't know that it's government's role to put pressure on utility companies," said Sharon Leighow, spokesperson for Gov. Sarah Palin.
Petrarca points a finger at the Palin administration for not declaring a state disaster in Juneau, which prevented the city from receiving state and federal aid, something he feels makes light of financial crisis felt when consumers received energy bills ranging from $500 to $1000.
Palin agreed with the decision of her disaster policy cabinet by not declaring a crisis in Juneau last month. Leighow said Palin's short-term energy plan of handing out debit cards with a $100 monthly balance to be used for utility, oil and gas payments will assist Juneau and other communities throughout the state.
"(Palin) appreciates the residents of Juneau and AEL&P for working through these circumstances. Their efforts are an example for the entire state to follow," Leighow said.
Karsten Rodvik, external affairs manager for the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, said in a statement that his department's job is only to ensure repairs are made to transmission lines.
"AEL&P has the responsibility to repair the Snettisham Line," says Rodvik. "AIDEA has the responsibility to assure that the line has been repaired. This has been accomplished. Hydropower has been restored to Juneau in far less time than originally anticipated."
With no government entity volunteering to step in, the Juneau Peoples Power Project very well may be up against the city, state and AEL&P.
Petrarca expected as much. The toughest fight, he said, will be an internal struggle as residents decide whether to act as "citizens or consumers."
"Asking people to resist is scary to some, but this is an action that has to happen," he said. "This problem was put into our laps and now we need to do a gut check to decide how we'll deal with it."
The JPPP is encouraging all Alaskan grass roots organizations to unite in order to promote renewable, reusable energy sources throughout all of Alaska.
To learn more about the Juneau Peoples Power Project visit www.juneaupeoplespowerproject.org.
Charles Westmoreland can be reached at email@example.com
The following excerpts are from Scott Willis, AEL&P spokesman, refuting accusations made by the Juneau Peoples Power Project.
Q: Why weren't diverters put in place?
WILLIS: "In the history of the transmission line, there was no indication they would be necessary. In 1976 an avalanche came down and tore up a structure in that area and the federal government, who owned the structure at that time, moved it too another less hazardous area. Our experience said to continue to maintain the line the same way the federal government did for the first 25 years of the project. The (Snettisham Avalanche Report) said deflection structures would not have helped in this case and avalanche still would have gotten the tower. Now that we see what large events can do, we need to look at things we can do to protect the line and really determine the cost to do that.
Q: Why weren't the lines insured?
WILLIS: "We could have been charging an extra two-tenths of a cent the whole time, or we can wait and if it falls down pay the two-tenths of a cent. Utility companies don't often insure transmission lines because it's very expensive, if it's even offered. The state made recommendations about insurance and said you need to have insurance for liability, pollution ... but said transmission line insurance is almost impossible to obtain and if you can its expensive. We relied on state's consultant.
Q: Why wasn't the area monitored prior to the slides?
WILLIS: There has never been any monitoring along the Snettisham transmission line. The kind of avalanches we had experience with passed harmlessly between the towers and didn't do any damage. It didn't seem like it was necessary. Now that we've had this dramatic event, I'm telling people we'll be monitoring so an event like this won't happen. We'll be doing monitoring next winter and hiring consultants to get advice to protect the line in the future. That may include diverters, putting the tower underground, or stronger structures, but it will take several years to conclude that study.