BWL Watch

By Andy Balaskovitz and Mickey Hirten

Where’s the Water Emergency Response Plan? The utility won’t release it.

If the BWL’s emergency plan for electric failed so miserably during the December ice storm, how confident can customers be that it has a competent plan for water emergencies?

For now, its a matter of trust. The utility has refused a City Pulse request for its Water Utility Emergency Response Plan, citing a provision of the Michigan Freedom of Information Act designed to prevent terrorists from gaining information that might disrupt service.

“The contents of this plan are of an extremely sensitive nature and must maintain the upmost (sic) confidence which is allowed by Michigan Law,” BWL spokesman Steve Serkaian wrote in its rejection note.

Of course, the same FOIA provision applies to the emergency electric service plan that BWL has published on its website, a precedent, perhaps. For an organization whose credibility is as eroded as the BWLs, release of the plan could be seen as an assurance for customers of the beleaguered utility.

City Pulse has formally filed a FOIA request for the emergency water plan.

Review team requests documents from the BWL

The Community Review Team has formally requested documents from the BWL on its emergency preparedness, media and public communications, resource levels and capabilities, and “recovery and mitigation” as part of its investigation of the December ice storm.

“While this request is only the first request, we believe that, with the receipt of these documents and answers, we can begin to analyze the events associated with the December 2013 ice storm and to create substantive best practice recommendations that will best serve the greater Lansing community,” retired Brig. Gen. Michael C.H.

McDaniel said in a statement. Mayor Virg Bernero appointed McDaniel as chairman of the nine-member committee.

The extensive five-page request asks for the utility’s emergency action plan and emergency procedures manual; communication logs on downed wires; employee organizational charts and mutual aid agreement details, to name a few. The full request is available at

In a Jan. 30 letter to BWL General Manager J. Peter Lark, McDaniel requests the documents and any other information be turned over no later than Feb. 13 so it can meet its March 31 deadline to issue a set of recommendations. 


Council rejects Wood’s appeal for review-team transparency

On Thursday, the Lansing City Council voted down a resolution proposed by Councilwoman Carol Wood that requested the Community Review Team “conduct any and all meetings in accordance with the State of Michigan Open Meetings Act.”

The resolution was shot down 5-3, with Council members Derrick Quinney, Kathie Dunbar, Tina Houghton, Judi Brown Clarke and Jody Washington voting against. Council members A’Lynne Boles and Jessica Yorko voted for the resolution.

But it’s not as if the five members against were giving the board a pass to operate in secrecy. They each stated that they have no reason to believe it will operate in the dark and took the panel chairman’s word that it would operate in public when at all possible. Retired Brig. Gen. Michael C.H. McDaniel, the panel chairman, has said that confidential documents may surface. Lansing City Attorney Janene McIntyre issued an opinion after the panel was formed saying that it was not required to abide by the Open Meetings Act.

MLive: Lark deleted his emails

On Monday,’s Melissa Anders reported that BWL General Manager J. Peter Lark deleted emails between himself and city officials during the early days of the December ice storm.

BWL spokesman Steve Serkaian acknowledged that such emails existed, but that it’s standard practice of keeping them only if they’re useful.

“While Mr. Lark sent or received emails between December 21st and December 26th, he followed his career long practice of training the emails for the duration of their useful value. Therefore, he deleted emails from his computer at the moment they had not useful value,” Serkaian told MLive.

The Mayor’s Office also said that emails did not exist between Lark and Mayor Virg Bernero during that time.

Meanwhile, City Councilwoman Carol Wood was “happy” to provide MLive with several emails between her and Lark during that period. There was nothing in those exchanges that indicated Lark had left town to visit family in New York City over Christmas.

Bass does business with the BWL

Steven Reed reported in Tuesday’s State Journal that Friedland Industries, the Old Town-based commodity recycler, has paid the BWL more than $2.1 million for scrap metal since 2002. Friedland reprocess the materials and sells it at a profit The catch? Larry Bass, the co-owner and president of Friedland, was tapped by retired Brig. Gen. Micahel C.H. McDaniel to serve on a nine-member Community Review Team. Mayor Virg Bernero appointed McDaniel as chairman of the team. Bass told the State Journal that he notified McDaniel of this prior to coming on. “I said, ‘If that’s an issue, just tell me,’” Bass reportedly said to McDaniel.

Moreover, the Journal reports, Bass said he’s known McDaniel for about 20 years, starting in 1991 when Friedland helped the Michigan National Guard with a project to bring stability to former Soviet republics. McDaniel was reportedly a colonel in the National Guard at the time.

“As a result of the relationship,” Reed writes, “Bass said he called McDaniel to offer congratulations after Bernero announced his choice to lead the review. Bass offered to help ‘if there was anything I could do.’”

CRT public hearings

Today at Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Road in East Lansing • Thursday at Pattengill Middle School, 626 Marshall St., Lansing • Friday, Meeting Room A, Delta Township Hall, 7710 W. Saginaw Highway, Lansing.

Each meeting starts at 7 p.m.

Op-ed: BWL too technical, not customer friendly

by Brad van Guilder

As it plans for changes in electricity production, the Board of Water and Light should seek more community input

The crisis with the Lansing Board of Water and Light in part stems from a culture of an organization too focused on the technical aspects of producing and distributing power and not on providing service to its customers.

Some have suggested that the BWL should be regulated by the Michigan Public Service Commission. However, it is precisely the type of regulatory-focused structure of the commission — once led by Peter Lark — that characterizes the culture under Lark’s leadership at the BWL.

The MPSC is intended to regulate the for-profit corporations that have been granted a monopoly to provide electricity to the vast majority of Michigan’s residents and businesses. The highly legalistic and technical proceedings of the MPSC are not the appropriate governance structure for a municipal utility, where there can be better communitybased accountability.

When Lark came to the BWL after being chairman of the MPSC, he brought several talented technical people with him. They largely replicated the highly formal structure of the MPSC at the LBWL and acted as if their sole accountability was to the board of commissioners.

The investor-owned utilities — Consumers Power and DTE Energy — are accountable first to their Wall Street investors and second to their regulators, such as the MPSC and the Environmental Protection Agency. The BWL, on the other hand, is accountable first to the community that relies on its service. Hosting a chili cook-off makes for goodwill but it does not involve residents in the core mission and planning for their municipal utility.

The electric utility industry is undergoing a tectonic shift over the next five to 10 years. How power is generated and distributed reliably will change dramatically.

This change is mostly being driven by the escalating cost of fossil fuels and the fast growth of affordable renewable energy and efficiency technologies. Historically the BWL has relied on up to 98 percent of its power being generated by burning coal, but has recently diversified.

The BWL has been focused on the technical issues of how it will manage this change impacting the entire electric utility industry. So far it is ahead of both Consumers Energy and DTE Energy in its planning.

But the BWL remains far behind the pace of change needed to avoid a major disruption to both our climate and our economy.

In its planning process, the BWL has left out one of its most important assets as a municipal utility — the community it serves. The changes in the electric utility industry have far more options in generating electricity and maintaining reliable service than ever before, but the utilities planning alone means they will not produce the most reliable systems that work for the communities they serve.

Residents need to be part of a planning process moving forward that reflects the values and vision of the community. If the BWL had done this earlier, then issues of protecting the most vulnerable people they serve, such as those with medical devices, would have undoubtedly been raised.

As an example, the BWL is already planning to add a third interconnection to the national electrical grid. This will provide greater reliability in capacity for power, but it will also necessitate changes and improvements in the local distribution grid. With the experience of the recent failure in service, the BWL should be asking for ideas from the community that will make for more resilient service. Does it mean more buried cables? Should the BWL coordinate with emergency services to create microgrids that can isolate those emergency services and communications from a general service failure? How should those microgrids be powered — solar arrays with battery storage, generators or something else?

Representation from areas outside of the city of Lansing should be embraced and provide meaningful involvement for all of the residents the BWL serves. The BWL needs to invest in more planning staff to tackle more than one planning topic at a time. The BWL should not retreat into its old structure shell but recreate itself as hometown power with a neighborly vision.

Brad van Guilder is a Sierra Club Beyond Coal to Clean Energy organizing representative. The organization has been in conversation with the BWL for several years as part of the Lansing Can Do Better coalition first to discourage the construction of a new coal plant.