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Countries Finger-Pointing on Blackout

It's one more thing for the U.S. and Canada to disagree about: Where did the outage start?

August 16, 2003|Bob Baker and Andrew VanVelzen | Special to the Times

TORONTO — Canada and the United States, whose policy differences range from the war in Iraq to the decriminalization of marijuana, found one more thing to disagree on Friday: Where this massive power outage started.

The spat matters little because the electrical power grid system that runs between the two countries scarcely recognizes national borders.

Nevertheless, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg almost immediately suggested the transmission problem started in Canada. The Canadian defense minister responded by saying the outages appeared to have started with a fire at a U.S. nuclear plant -- a claim the government later retracted.

Later, Friday, at a press conference, Ontario's premier, Earnie Eves, said he would stick by the initial assessment of the North American Electric Reliability Council, an oversight group, which could say only that the root of the problem appeared to be in the "upper Midwest" of the U. S.

On Friday, the two countries did agree to set up a joint task force to determine what caused the blackout. It will be chaired by U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Herb Dhaliwal.

In Toronto, where people were more worried about lugging a bicycle 18 stories up a darkened stairway or finding that the mayonnaise had spoiled, the U.S.-Canadian finger-pointing brought a lot of eye rolling.

"Oh, the Americans are blaming the Canadians, and the Canadians are blaming the Americans," said Joanne Grey as she walked to work through intersections that in some cases had functioning signals and in others tested the civility of motorists.

"Have you ever seen the United States take the blame for anything?" asked Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman.

"There's a little blame game going back and forth when they should first be responding to the emergency," said Marsha Chase after she walked down 11 flights of stairs, flashlight in hand, and continued walking to her job in the Ontario Ministry of Finance.

Toronto awoke Friday after a relatively orderly night of no looting and 38 arrests, mostly for assault and purse-snatching. The city was a patchwork of haves and have-nots: From block to block, some people and businesses had power, while others didn't.

Ontario Premier Eves declared a state of emergency and urged all but essential workers to stay home and factories to close. And he pleaded with people to limit their use of air conditioning on a stiflingly humid summer day. The goal is to conserve enough energy to allow Ontario to return to a full work day on Monday -- albeit with rolling blackouts. Eves said he hoped two-thirds of the province would have power restored by Friday night.

Most major shopping centers were closed Friday but numerous restaurants opened. The subway system remained shut down but buses and street cars were running.

Lines at gas stations, in some cases, stretched up to two dozen cars. One talk show host told his audience to shut down their air conditioning and said the government should be demanding compliance rather than simply asking for it.

Beyond the day-to-day inconveniences, the lack of electrical power threatens Ontario's ruling Conservative Party. All year, party leaders had worried that blackouts might call attention to deficiencies of their partial privatization of Ontario's electricity system.

The issue is expected to play a significant role in the upcoming provincial election.

Howard Hampton, leader of Ontario's small, left-of-center New Democratic Party, said the finger-pointing between U.S. and Canada was relevant because it dramatized Ontario's weakened energy position.

Hampton, who has written a book on energy, and is a critic of Ontario's deregulation policy, said the private sector failed to spend enough money to increase power reserves. That meant that Ontario was importing electricity that, had it remained in the U.S., could have prevented the blackout's spread to the U.S., Hampton said.

Tom Adams, head of Energy Probe, an independent energy think tank that supports deregulation, said all that was evident so far about Thursday's collapse was that "there was an engineering screw-up somewhere ... some technical gap."


Associated Press contributed to this report.

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