By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — A social-justice advocacy group is taking legal action against National Grid and the state for shutting off electricity and gas to low-income and disabled customers.
The class-action lawsuit, filed by the Rhode Island Center for Justice in Superior Court, claims the state’s primary electric company terminated power and gas service to disadvantaged groups in violation of state and federal law and the state Division of Public Utilities and Carriers didn’t stop it.
“These actions have caused severe hardship for those struggling to pay their bills, resulting in emergency medical treatment and hospitalization for some,” according to a Center for Justice press release.
About 5,400 low-income gas customers and 3,100 electric customers with illnesses are at risk of having their utilities turned off, according to the legal group. In all, 16,100 electric customers and 11,177 gas customers in Rhode Island had their electricity terminated between April 2014 and March 2015, according to National Grid. About 85 percent of customers who lose service eventually have it restored.
Some of the medically vulnerable need electricity to power oxygen pumps and nebulizers for asthma or emphysema, said Robert McCreanor, executive director of the Center for Justice.
“This lawsuit is about protecting the most vulnerable households in the state who experience the biggest hardship when their power is shut off,” he said.
National Grid told ecoRI News that it doesn’t discuss litigation. A released statement by the company said customers with financial problems can receive counseling on payment plans and budget programs, as well as information about social-service agencies that may help make payments.
“National Grid considers shutting off service to a customer to be a reluctant, last step taken in a long process we follow to work with customers who have fallen behind in utility bill payments,” according to the release. “Customers who are experiencing proven financial hardship and can provide proof of a serious medical condition, or other qualifying criteria, as detailed in a letter to the company from their physician, may qualify as having protected status. If they qualify for this status they cannot be shut off during the winter moratorium and can request a hearing before the Division of Public Utilities. ... In these cases we follow the directives of the Division.”
State regulations prevent National Grid from turning off utilities between Nov. 1 and April 15.
The Center for Justice opened in Providence in January through a partnership with Roger Williams University. The nonprofit provides legal services for three social-service groups: the Community Action Partnership in Providence, Fuerza Laboral in Central Falls and the George Wiley Center in Pawtucket.