Blackouts and Businesses: Dying for an Exemption?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Never mind getting stuck in an elevator. Next time there's a power outage, pray you're not at La Scala.

The upscale Beverly Hills eatery says that 26 to 100 of its patrons are likely to die, "depending upon how many guests are in the restaurant during a blackout, and how many guests are subjected to contaminated food."

If "likely to die" sounds a little harsh, that prognosis is surprisingly common.

La Scala is one of more than 10,000 businesses and public agencies that filed applications in the last few weeks to be spared from an anticipated 20 to 200 hours of rolling blackouts once temperatures start rising this summer and electricity gets more scarce.

Dental offices, cemeteries, churches, beauty salons, hotels, law firms and at least one dance studio are vying for the expected handful of exemptions, all arguing that members of the public could hurt themselves in the dark or have heart attacks in a panic.

Food poisoning is just the beginning. Applicants raise the specter of chemical spills, heavy-machinery failures, medical emergencies and even civil unrest.

Because the Public Utilities Commission has declared that only health and safety concerns--and not economic hardship--will qualify businesses for the new round of discretionary exemptions--some companies are letting their imaginations flourish.

Evidently reluctant to simply throw away spoiled food, the restaurant and catering industries alone could be responsible for scores of bacteria-related massacres, were one to accept at face value the applications made public this week on a PUC computer terminal.

La Scala Vice President Wendy Ham declined to be interviewed about the restaurant's filing with the commission. Other businesses were more forthcoming.

Santa Ana catering firm A Perfect Affair, for example, says in its application that it is likely to serve last meals to some 100 to 1,000 souls.

"I didn't fudge that at all," said owner Stephen Server. "It was basically my opinion. . . . I'm not a soothsayer."

Galley Catering of Long Beach, more modestly, foresees one to three deaths and 100 to 1,000 minor health problems resulting from "food-based bacteria issues." Of course, business there could be slow.

The PUC recently extended the filing deadline to Friday for applications via a Web site, http://www.rotating-outages.com. The agency hired Menlo Park engineering consultant Exponent Inc. to rank the sometimes apocalyptic visions--all submitted under penalty of perjury--and plans to vote on them Aug. 2.

Public Utilities Commissioner Carl Wood said the exaggeration is regrettable but not surprising.

"It doesn't make it easier when people stretch the law of probability, but it's to be expected," Wood said. "We understood we could get people trying to make their best case."

Such apparent self-interest is nothing new, said James C. Williams, author of "Energy and the Making of Modern California" (1997).

"People just don't care a whit about the larger society as long as they make money," said Williams, a professor at De Anza College.

Exponent's project manager, Subodh Medhekam, estimates that more than 300 companies say they each will lay waste to at least 1,000 lives in the event of a blackout. Hundreds more claim they will cause at least one human being to pass on.

"There are some people who may not have been all that truthful," Medhekam said. "You can see our problems here." He said Exponent isn't blindly accepting anyone's predictions.

Among those that say they pose the most dire threats in the event of blackouts are broadcasters, factories handling noxious chemicals and those in the ordinarily nonthreatening world of food service.

With the latter, size is no obstacle. At tiny but apparently potent J&W; Liquor in Blythe, owner Joyce Wong said in her filing that she sells perishable foods to more than 100 customers a day, and that at least that many are likely to expire if the power is off for more than two hours.

Many key public safety operations already are exempt from conservation blackouts, including hospitals, defense outposts, utilities, air and sea transport communications, trains and other mass transit, and radio and television broadcasters that carry emergency information.

Then there are the lucky homes and businesses that share the same piece of the electric network as providers of essential services, bringing the total amount of protected power to 50% of the peak load. The PUC says it can exempt a maximum of an additional 10% through the new program.

Some of those already exempt have applied again, either because they don't know they are protected or because the utilities can knock them off that list if they have enough backup power.

KSON-AM radio in San Diego said more than 1,000 people would probably die if it couldn't broadcast emergency news. Cocola Broadcasting Cos. of Fresno said that if its 20 television stations lost power, as many as 100 people would perish.

Cocola President Gary Cocola conceded that some viewers might just turn to another channel to get emergency information.

"Maybe the guy who filled that form out got a little ambitious," he said in an interview. But some who watch his stations' broadcasts of the Home Shopping Network are more at risk, he said.

"The women who watch our station put that on and leave it on. They become addicts," Cocola said. "If the channel goes off the air, they may not be switching around."

Other applicants make a more persuasive case, such as dialysis centers and medical offices.

But even some health-care providers may be stretching the point.

Daly City's Home Sweet Home is licensed to care for 57 elderly residents with dementia, all of whom wear sensors to alert the staff if they wander off the grounds.

In the event of a blackout, administrator Carlene Burton said in an interview, the home would have to station a staff member at every door.

Not ideal, certainly, but a far cry from the 26-plus deaths predicted in the company's application. No one was hurt during the last blackout, owner Yelka Matijas said. But the next time, she said, "I don't want to think about it."

Another set of applicants took advantage of the electronic form's failure to specify that the potential deaths must be human. Several veterinary clinics complained that patients could die on the operating table.

Nightclub owners also applied in droves.

The House of Blues in West Hollywood wrote that, even though it has an emergency lighting system, severe health effects were "somewhat likely" if a show were suddenly forced to go acoustic.

"People who have consumed alcohol can become overheated very quickly, as well as [fail to use] good judgment in remaining calm," the club wrote. It added, a bit cryptically, that this is true "especially depending on the demographic for that show."

Many retailers realize they face long odds of winning exemption. Yet Gibson Jewelers in Escondido said that as many as 10 deaths are "somewhat likely" in a brief outage because it anticipates an armed robbery.

Interestingly, most of those predicting horrific consequences simultaneously admit they have no backup generators--providing plaintiffs lawyers with the documentary equivalent of a smoking gun, should someone actually get hurt.

Others have complained that sudden blackouts would cut power to workers operating heavy machinery, but they conceded in interviews that they hadn't mentioned such risks to the workers themselves.

Commissioner Wood said that as an application nears approval, the business must sign a statement supporting its claims. He wouldn't rule out penalties for misstatements but said they wouldn't be a high priority.

"We're not playing 'gotcha!' " he said.

Alongside those with more creative applications, small businesses from the Gardena Bowling Center to Gucci America in Beverly Hills said that no one was likely to be harmed if the lights went out but asked to be spared anyway. (A Los Angeles Times printing plant in Costa Mesa falls in that category.)

"People are treating it like a lottery," said PUC consultant Medhekam.

One thing that might have made his task easier, he said, would have been simple: a $100 application fee.

"That would have weeded out some frivolous applications," he said. "And the state would have made a lot of money."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Seeking Exemptions

More than 10,000 California companies, public agencies and other organizations have applied for a new round of exemptions from rotating power blackouts. To join those already protected, such as hospitals and police stations, they must make a case that a loss of electrical power would pose a threat to public health and safety.

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Company: Foasberg Cleaners, Long Beach

Claimed likely deaths in unannounced blackout: 1 to 3

Reason: "Equipment could cause accidents."

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Company: Golden Crust Bakeries, Valencia

Claimed likely deaths in unannounced blackout: 1 to 3

Reason: Cheese spoilage

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Company: Hawthorne Dog & Cat Hospital, Lawndale

Claimed likely deaths in unannounced blackout: 4 to 10

Reason: If vet "could not see, the patient could die."

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Company: Capone's Cabinets, Orange

Claimed likely deaths in unannounced blackout: 4 to 10

Reason: Heavy machinery

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Company: Cash-It-Here Inc., Santa Ana

Claimed likely deaths in unannounced blackout: 1 to 3

Reason: "Civil unrest is a strong possibility if there is a delay in the issuance of food stamps."

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