Electric cooperatives seeking FEMA money
WORTHINGTON — Approximately 5,000 members of Nobles Cooperative Electric are being asked to contact their legislators in an appeal aimed at the Federal Emergency Management Agency after it was announced more than $1.2 million in reconstruction costs to NCE lines, and $546,376 in reconstruction costs to Federated Rural Electric lines are ineligible for reimbursement following the April 2013 ice storm.
Rick Burud, general manager of Nobles Cooperative Electric (NCE) in Worthington and Federated Rural Electric (FRE) in Jackson, said the cooperatives were notified by FEMA in late July of a rule that made a portion of their funding request ineligible for reimbursement. The reconstruction of 118 miles of line in NCE territory and 49 miles in Federated territory was not approved for federal funding.
Burud said appeals were filed with FEMA in August, but the cooperatives have not yet received a response.
“We sent the appeal letter in and they have 90 days to respond, but the government shut down through this period,” he explained. “We haven’t heard anything.”
Officials with FEMA say a response to the appeal is coming. They didn’t receive the appeal notification from the State of Minnesota until Oct. 16, meaning they have until Jan. 16 to respond, said Sarah Wolfe, an emergency management program specialist in Region 5, based in Chicago, Ill.
Wolfe said the original notification to the Minnesota cooperatives denying a portion of their funding request was based on the cooperatives’ failure to have a written, formally adopted and applied code of standard in place.
“Nobles and Federated, neither had a formally adopted code and standard that said, ‘When our lines receive X amount of damage, we replace them with new lines,’” Wolfe said. “They did not have a code and standard that was in writing, formally adopted and implemented prior to the disaster and uniformly applied. We have five criteria for standards, and that’s two of them.”
The rule has been part of the federal code of regulations FEMA abides by for nearly a decade, according to Wolfe.
NCE officials, however, say the rule was a change they weren’t made aware of.
Jerry Mausbach, NCE line superintendent, suspects the rule change had taken place sometime between the previous ice storm damage and the April storm that downed more than 1,700 power poles between NCE and FRE territory.
The previously unknown rule deals with industry construction standards for rebuilding power lines. Mausbach said there is a standard minimum size conductor used for new power line construction, which the cooperatives abide by. What they weren’t aware of is that FEMA now requires a policy of minimum size conductors to be used during replacement of all existing lines.
“Putting poles back up, replacing lines that were destroyed and restringing lines that were just down (not damaged), that was all covered,” explained Wolfe. “The reconductering (which was denied reimbursement) is when you look at a line that’s been damaged enough that you really need to buy new line and put up new.
“What they got denied was really an upgrade — taking down old lines and putting up the new lines,” she added. “When you’re trying to do an upgrade, you have to have code and standards formally in place.”
The appeal made to FEMA for reconsideration of the funding was accompanied by new documentation, which Wolfe said is under review by the Region 5 FEMA Administrator.
“Our contention is the ‘codes and standards’ followed by the cooperatives in loaning monies from Rural Utilities Service (formerly Rural Electric Association) are adequate and meet their new rule,” said Burud.
After learning of the codes and standards rule from FEMA, Mausbach said the local cooperative notified other electrical cooperatives across Minnesota of the change so this won’t happen in the future.
Meanwhile, the local cooperatives continue to wait for a response from FEMA and are asking their members to get involved.
“We’d like to encourage any member who is going to be affected by this to contact their congressman and let their voice be heard on an issue that does directly affect them,” Mausbach said.
If FEMA continues its stance and refuses to reimburse NCE for line rebuilding costs, he said the cooperative will have to finance the repairs with borrowed money.
“Either way, we will need to move forward with the rebuilding,” said Mausbach. “It will have an adverse financial effect on membership.”
Wolfe said Nobles and Federated received approximately $3.5 million in federal grants to help fund repairs, which was paid out as a 75 percent cost-share with cooperatives.
As for the portion the cooperatives anticipated that wasn’t paid, Wolfe said they have the right to a second appeal if FEMA denies this first request. That appeal would advance to FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The 118 miles of NCE line required to be rebuilt or replaced are scattered throughout the cooperative’s territory, but mainly in Nobles County. Mausbach said those repairs could take two to three years to complete, with work slated to begin this summer.
He noted the lines are repaired and in “safe and reliable condition.” The 118 miles of line represent about 11 percent of the overhead power line system in NCE territory. The cooperative manages 2,000 miles of line, of which 1,100 miles are overhead.
“The good news is we’ve got most everything up and safe … (and) ready to make it through the winter,” said Burud of the line repair work that has taken more than eight months to complete.
While the lines may not be new wires or poles, Burud said he doesn’t want the local electrical cooperatives to “be the example” due to a FEMA technicality.
“We’ve been told that FEMA’s budgets are very limited due to the many disasters we’ve faced as a nation,” he said. “We hope that our elected officials can ensure we’re treated equally to everyone else.”
Wolfe, meanwhile, contends FEMA is simply following the rules.
“The goal of public assistance and the FEMA program is to get every eligible dollar that we can into the communities and to the applicants who need it,” she said. “What we don’t want to do is award money that’s not eligible that would then have to be recouped following an audit.
“Our goal is to give every dollar that’s eligible, and not a dollar more.”
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330