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State PSC staff appeals ruling clearing utility in man's death

April 14, 2004|by DAVID DISHNEAU

The Maryland Public Service Commission staff and the Office of People's Counsel have appealed a state hearing examiner's decision clearing Allegheny Energy Inc. in the electrocution of a sailor at Deep Creek Lake.

PSC Hearing Examiner Dennis H. Sober's ruling on April 3 overruled a staff report faulting the Hagerstown-based utility for having a power line hanging 26 feet, 3 inches above the lake near a floating dock instead of the 40 feet, 6 inches of clearance the National Electrical Safety Code requires in areas suitable for sailing.

The appeals, filed Friday and Monday, said Sober ignored an obvious threat posed by the line and disregarded evidence presented by the PSC staff.

Allen Staggers, a spokesman for Allegheny Power, the Allegheny Energy subsidiary responsible for the line, said Tuesday that Sober's ruling "confirmed our position that the line was properly constructed."

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Brian Hatfield, 43, of Jamestown, New York, died and two people were hurt July 7, 2001, when his friend's boat overshot the dock. The aluminum mast touched the line, setting the craft on fire and electrifying the water. The top of the mast was about 28 feet, 2 inches above the water, according to investigators' reports.

Sober, relying heavily on the testimony of Allegheny witnesses who investigated within days of the accident, concluded that the water beneath the 7,200-volt transmission line at the point of contact was brushy and unsuitable for sailing. Power lines over such waters require just 17 feet of clearance.

In his ruling, Sober put little stock in observations made 91/2 months later by a PSC staff investigator who acknowledged he didn't know the exact location of the incident.

The PSC staff appeal notes that the contact occurred less than two boat lengths past the dock. "An area so close to the dock would have to be considered suitable for sailboating, regardless of shoreline vegetation, because of the high likelihood that sailboats attempting to dock would end up in that area," Assistant Staff Counsel Michael A. Dean wrote.

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