HIBBING — Hundreds have rallied behind a petition calling for a formal investigation into the Hibbing Public Utility after more than 5,000 residents lost power on one of the coldest nights of the year and after a string of recent outages.
The standing air temperature was minus 23 degrees with a wind chill advisory in effect as neighborhoods around Hibbing plunged into darkness Thursday evening — their heat sources with it.
Shortly after 11 p.m., the staff at Hibbing Public Utilities updated their website and newly-installed Facebook page, stating they were aware of the outage and that crews were out looking for the source. When more than an hour passed with no resolution or update, hundreds of comments flooded onto their Facebook post. People posted about the temperatures of their homes dropping to 50 degrees. Parents commented about bundling up their infants, wondering if they should go to a hotel or to an out-of-town relative's house. Others considered loading their sleeping children into vehicles and driving around because at least there would be heat. Additional concerns brewed about disabled, elderly and ill people who could do nothing to help themselves, as some questioned why they pay such “high rates” only to experience outage after outage.
During one of Scott Hautala’s final appearances in a Hibbing Public Utilities Commission meeting before losing his job as HPU’s general manager, he told commissioners that the utility had experienced a total of 46 outages in 2019, resulting in an average of 3.8 outages per customer. The outage reasons: 24 due to equipment failure, six due to nature, 10 due to humans, four due to a power supplier, and two in the “other” category.
In December 2019, a main circuit control fuse failed and left 6,300 homes without power for more than two hours and steam for another six hours. Last month, water leaked through the air handling unit on the utility company’s roof and onto the 13,800-volt switchgear in the electrical equipment room to cause a major circuit short. About 1,500 customers were left without power and heat. A day later, 300 customers endured the same issues for about half an hour.
On Friday morning, as the clock struck midnight, then 1 a.m., there remained no explanation for the latest power loss, no additional updates and no estimated times for restoral. It was the same story playing out time and time again: the public demanding real-time updates after losing their primary heat source in the dead of a northern Minnesota winter and the Hibbing Public Utilities failing to provide them. Not even having social media at their fingertips proved to be lubricant in the lines of communication that many hoped for here. The problem runs deeper and terminating the general manager has yet to solve it.
A petition, an apology
At about 1:30 a.m. Friday, Hibbing’s power was back up and running, but it would take more than 10 hours before the 5,230 households and businesses affected would learn any of the details. Staff at Hibbing Public Utilities finally updated their Facebook page around noon, stating that the outage had been caused by a “failed underground terminator at the power plant interconnect substation 22kv309.”
The original 11 p.m. post on Thursday night about the outage — which had garnered around 400 public comments — was deleted sometime after 6:30 a.m. Friday morning.
The new post, which also appeared on their website, would also include an apology: “In the wake of last night’s outage, the HPU shares the ratepayers’ frustrations and concerns and takes full responsibility for the situation. At no time is a power outage ideal, and we understand with the cold temperatures, there was an added hardship for our customers.”
The full statement acknowledged that the situation was “unacceptable” and that crews had worked through the night in the frigid temperatures to try and prevent additional power disruptions.
Many who expressed their frustrations over social media also expressed empathy toward utility workers who were outdoors working on a fix, yet more questions arose: what about maintenance? Had the failure been avoidable?
The apology arrived too late for some. Ben Burleigh, a 29-year-old propane and oil delivery driver from Hibbing, had already taken to www.change.org to launch a petition he called, “Hold Hibbing Public Utilities Accountable,” aiming for a “formal and fair investigation into the mismanagement” of the utility. Before 11 a.m. Friday morning, the petition already had 200 supporters. By 12:30 p.m., that number had doubled to 400, and by 5 p.m., more than 700 names had racked up on the online form.
Parts of the petition read, “The residents of this city rely on working power to keep homes, schools, and businesses heated and running. In a state where the winter temperatures can reach -50, this is unacceptable.”
“The residents have been consistently hit with insanely high electric and steam rates that seem to always go up and never down. Nobody should have to still be paying off their winter bills in August. Your utility payment should not be double the cost of a mortgage or rent payment.”
“A single Facebook post and a single sentence on a website is not sufficient. We deserve to know.”
“The Hibbing City Council has been highly critical in recent months of Hibbing Public Utilities, and rightfully so. We believe that Mayor Rick Cannata and the rest of the city council agree with us — enough is enough.”
The appeal ended with Burleigh calling on city councilors to audit and investigate the utility and its spending (or lack thereof). Burleigh, a father to two toddlers, told the Hibbing Daily Tribune on Friday morning that within an hour of losing power the previous night, his apartment had dropped from about 70 degrees to the lower 50s. And though the power was restored at 1 a.m., his apartment was still hovering around 60 degrees six hours later.
“Any parent can agree that we shouldn't have to worry about keeping our children warm,” Burleigh said. “During the massive outage before this one, my power was out over four hours — well into the evening. We had no way to cook food, and we couldn't eat out or order delivery because restaurants had no power either.”
He explained that as a ratepayer, the string of recent outages combined with the price increases, lack of public communication during outages, and a lack of clarity on how money will be spent to fix ongoing problems is what pushed him to create the petition.
“Nobody should have to pay more for their heat than they do for rent.” He later added, “... At the end of the day, it's the ratepayers, the residents of this town that suffer the real damages: being cold, broke, or both.”
Earlier this week, Hibbing Public Utility commissioners voted to form a two-person sub-committee to appoint an interim general manager to temporarily fill the void left by Hautala.
When HDT reached out to the utility for comment on Friday afternoon, Director Utility Operations Corey Lubovich remarked that he had not seen the petition.
The mayor responds
Acknowledging the complexity of the issue, Burleigh said he “commends” Mayor Cannata for his actions on Jan. 15 when during a joint meeting between the City Council and Hibbing Public Utility Commissioners demanded accountability, beginning at the top.
That same evening Cannata and State Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, questioned the HPU general manager about whether utility management had mishandled tens of millions of dollars from the Xcel Energy buyout in 2017. At the time, former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton approved a law so Xcel could back out early from power purchase agreements with biomass plants on the Iron Range. The law also provided compensation for the cities, including $142 million to the Laurentian Energy Authority, or roughly $57 million to Hibbing and Virginia utilities through 2022 after each paid off remaining debt.
By the end of last month’s heated public exchange, Cannata called for the commission to fire Hautala along with Director of Finance Jean Lane and Director of Electrical Systems Dan Chase. At the following utility commission meeting on Jan. 28, all three were individually reviewed in closed sessions that totaled three and a half hours.
After they re-emerged, James Bayliss, who serves as both a commissioner and city councilor, motioned for all three — Hautala, Lane and Chase — to be terminated from their positions. Each vote was split and only Hautala was let go as a result.
As he shared his parting words, Hautala remarked in part, “It’s on behalf of individual ratepayers is why I did what I did. And I have no regrets on having that silent majority of the Hibbing ratepayers, both businesses’ and residents’ interest in mind when I made my decisions.”
Burleigh, a resident who has lived here for more than 20 years, said his petition is meant to signal to the council that there are people in the community who support what they’ve done and want to see more action in the way of resolution.
Friday afternoon, Mayor Cannata told the HDT that he and the city councilors were aware of the latest outage and its impact on those who live here. “We are going to be working with the PUC to fix these problems and work for the betterment of the citizens and the people of Hibbing,” Cannata said. “It’s going to take time. Hang in there.”