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Editorial: Don't scrimp on safety

The biggest provider of landline telephone and Internet service in Oregon wants regulators to let it pare back utility pole maintenance to one-fifth of its current requirement as a cost-cutting measure.

In a May 22 Willamette Week article entitled “Down to the wire,” CenturyLink is reported to have asked the Oregon Public Utility Commission to put off routine maintenance of utility poles to 10 years, five times the currently mandated two years.

CenturyLink serves 64 percent of the state’s landline customers, including many of those in Wasco and Hood River counties.

The company cites the burden of corporate debts, saying they have given it little room to maneuver. At the same time, the utility lost more than half its Oregon customers between 2002 and 2011, causing state revenues to decline by almost a third.

Caught in this pincer maneuver of circumstances, it’s understandable that CenturyLink would be looking for every way it can to cut expenses.

But safety is nowhere to cut corners. Not only would the change increase the risk to CenturyLink’s workers, but to other line workers like those of Northern Wasco Count People’s Utility District.

Poorly maintained poles and equipment also put the general public and their property at risk. And they mean greater risk of outages as a result of weather-related damage.

It’s no accident that Northern Wasco County PUD has very few weather-related outages. It has an aggressive policy of line and pole maintenance, as well as tree pruning, that minimizes the potential for emergency outages.

Were CenturyLink to reduce its maintenance by such a drastic measure, who knows what could be the result? In their Public Utility Commission filings, CenturyLink promised the time extension would only apply “when such violations pose little or no foreseeable risk of danger to life or property.” But how can they assure those conditions without having regular eyes on the poles to begin with?

Without a doubt, the cutback would result in layoffs in their staff of line workers, so who would assure the equipment remains risk-free?

It’s hard to sympathize with CenturyLink’s request. The corporation’s leaders have put it in this position with an aggressive expansion policy that apparently has failed to factor in some blatantly obvious changes in market forces — specifically the dominance of cell phones.

Now they want to lay the burden of those risky decisions on the backs of their employees and the public at large in the form of real increases in the potential for physical danger.

The risks CenturyLink took with its financial choices should rest squarely on the shoulders of corporate leadership and the stockholders.

The Oregon Public Utility Commission should continue to oppose this change. The top two planks of the commission’s mission are to “ensure that safe and reliable utility services are provided to consumers.”

CenturyLink’s request raises strong questions about the company’s ability to do that.


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