The Dallas Morning News

Grieving parents fought for law, but it was ignored

- DAVE LIEBER watchdog@dallasnews.com dallasnews.com/watchdog

Who got a new state law passed two years ago taking on the electric utility companies? You did. You’re Michelle and Stan Brannon of East Texas, and you sure know how to take names and kick an unmentiona­ble body part.

Then when you learned that the Public Utility Commission wasn’t doing what the new law told it to do, you called out regulators for derelictio­n of duties. You let the public know about it.

Everyone needs to know what you accomplish­ed. Why? After more than 130 people died in the February storms, you’re proving that, sadly, history is repeating itself. The energy lobby is too rich and powerful to beat. Almost. You showed it can be done. We can all learn from you.

Your son Will was killed four years ago in an accident too horrible to think about. He and two friends were on a sailboat in Lake O’ The Pines when their mast hit a sagging power line. All three were electrocut­ed. All three died.

Will, 17, was about to enter his senior year in high school. He was an Eagle Scout, a rock climber, a collector of funny hats.

You cried, but then you responded to the loss of Will and his friends in a most inspiring way: You and the other parents dug in and asked questions. What happened? Why did it happen?

Who should be held accountabl­e?

You learned that in Texas high-voltage transmissi­on lines were not regulated or inspected. Line maintenanc­e was voluntary. How’d that slip through the cracks?

Two years ago, you told your story to State Rep. Chris Paddie, R-marshall, and he was sufficient­ly moved to introduce a bill requiring electric utilities to submit to the PUC reports about accidents, fatalities and safety education programs.

In Austin, you visited the offices of 150 House members and 34 senators. You attended hearings and spoke through public testimony, telling the same heart-breaking story time after time.

Some people wondered why you couldn’t accept Will’s death and move on. You were amateurs, but you were dogged. The William Thomas Heath Power Line Safety Act, named after the three boys, requires utilities to submit safety and power line accident reports to the PUC. Miraculous­ly, the bill was signed into law.

You were so proud, and rightfully so. People spend a lifetime trying to get an idea turned into law. Y’all did it on your first shot. You believed the new law created accountabi­lity where there was none before.

But then you ran into a monument to weakness — the PUC — or as I call it the (p) UC. I took away the P because it doesn’t serve the public. Nothing proves this better than what happened next.

The new law is clear: the (P)UC is given the power to “take enforcemen­t actions under the commission’s authority.”

You decided to trust but verify. That didn’t go well.

Let’s just say somebody is not getting their “P” back.

In early February, a week and a half before the big, big storms, you met with then (P)UC Chair Deann Walker and staff. You say you learned that the (P)UC had not reviewed the first power line reports submitted by utilities. There was no list of delinquent filers. Informatio­n about accidents and violations was not studied.

You say chairwoman Walker apologized and said staff would get on it. But it was clear to you the (P)UC wasn’t following through with the reports it received. It was given the power to “take enforcemen­t actions.” But how can you do that if you don’t even read them?

All of this leads us to today. You’re no longer amateurs. You’ve gone to enough (P)UC meetings to know what you’re

talking about. That’s why we should listen to your most recent testimony to lawmakers in Austin.

You do not believe that, in your words, “utilities can be trusted to follow standards unless there are strict requiremen­ts.” The (P)UC, which foolishly shut down its enforcemen­t and oversight division several months ago, must remake itself as a regulator, not a utilities enabler.

You say that weatheriza­tion of energy-producing plants and lines must be strict, mandatory and followed through with rigorous oversight. Self-policing of utilities is a joke — and now, as we know, a horror.

You are meeting with (P)UC staff, helping them get on top of this. You say it’s going well.

(P)UC spokesman Andrew P. Barlow explains his shop’s handling of this: Most companies were complying, and regulators were already “in the review process when the Brannons requested a status update,” he said.

He continued, “The PUC has been informally reaching out to companies that failed to file. Most recently, companies

that filed reports deemed late or inadequate have been sent warning letters and next steps are pending.”

All this should have been done already.

The spokesman added, “We respect and admire the manner in which Mr. and Mrs. Brannon have channeled their grief over an unspeakabl­e tragedy into advocacy for meaningful change.”

On that, we agree. You taught us a profound lesson. People saw that sagging power line over the lake and asked, “Why doesn’t somebody do something?”

Your attitude is to speak up and say what needs to be said. Never assume somebody else is going to take care of it.

You’re Michelle and Stan Brannon of East Texas, frontline soldiers in the battle for intelligen­t electricit­y regulation. Your boy Will would be so proud of you. You want to help put the P back, but it’s a terrible struggle.

 ??  ??
 ?? Brannon family ?? Stan and Michelle Brannon’s son, Will, was electrocut­ed in 2017. After the accident, the Brannons fought to get a new law passed, but the PUC ignored it.
Brannon family Stan and Michelle Brannon’s son, Will, was electrocut­ed in 2017. After the accident, the Brannons fought to get a new law passed, but the PUC ignored it.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States