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Allumettes Island residents continue their campaign against Hydro Quebec

By Ryan Paulsen, The Daily Observer

Ryan Paulsen / Daily Observer
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Allumettes Island Mayor Winston Sunstrum addresses a packed St. Joseph Centre on Wednesday evening, July 28 at the first public meeting of the newly struck Special Hydro Electric Advocacy Committee, a group aiming to put more pressure on Hydro Quebec to fix the problems of near-constant outages and surges plaguing the island's residents.

Ryan Paulsen / Daily Observer
Allumettes Island Mayor Winston Sunstrum addresses a packed St. Joseph Centre on Wednesday evening, July 28 at the first public meeting of the newly struck Special Hydro Electric Advocacy Committee, a group aiming to put more pressure on Hydro Quebec to fix the problems of near-constant outages and surges plaguing the island's residents.

 

Residents of Allumettes Island are continuing their quest to force Hydro Quebec to deal with power problems that have long plagued the Ottawa River community.

Following a well-attended special council meeting held in Chapeau on June 14, a Special Hydro Electric Advocacy Committee was struck, consisting of local municipal councillors and members of the community, and on Wednesday night in the village of St. Joseph, the committee held its first meeting to update the broader community on their plans and efforts so far.

"I'm really pleased with how the meeting went," Isle-Aux-Allumettes Mayor Winston Sunstrum said following the meeting, "especially with the participation of the committee giving various points of view. People in the audience brought up situations of outages that I never would have thought of."

Frequent outages and surges have become part of life on the island for most residents, with a convoluted history of utility ownership and distribution leading to a unique situation where the island is simultaneously connected to the Ontario power grid while being served by Hydro Quebec, despite the proximity of the nearby Brookfield Energy generating station in Waltham.

Hydro Quebec, meanwhile, has repeatedly either disavowed the prevalence of outages and surges, or blamed them on the impact of trees falling across lines.

While it's beyond debate that some outages are caused by windblown trees pulling town hydro lines and poles, the sheer number of outages so far in 2016 is remarkable. According to literature distributed by the committee at Wednesday night's meeting, from the beginning of January through to the end of June, the island lost power no fewer than 36 times, with 22 outages occurring in the month of June alone. More than two thirds of these outages lasted only a minute or two, but on a few occasions, homes were without power for well over two or three hours.

The most damaging outage happened on June 12, which involved a surge that made a significant impact on a variety of homes in the area.

"The last surge we had was so powerful it blew out light bulbs, it fried plugs in walls, and in the village here [St. Joseph] there were arcs of electricity in one of the houses," says Sunstrum. "Surge protectors were fried and smoking, and that could be dangerous in the middle of the night. It could easily start a fire."

Surge protectors have become a popular item on the island by necessity, but larger-scale models that protect the breaker panel are expensive, and what many people don't realize, according to committee member Kevin Vickers, is that surge protectors are almost always a consumable product.

"Even a good surge protector is a one-time deal," he explained. "But a one-time deal should be once every three, four or five years. It shouldn't be every week."

The next gathering will come in the form of another special council meeting scheduled for Aug. 25 in Chapeau.

"It'll be done formally as a council meeting," says Sunstrum. "In those situations we have to have one topic, and our topic for that special council meeting will be the results of our efforts. So the committee will report to the public the results of our efforts and our next steps. The results will include how many forms we got, how many complaints did we get, and how many people went online."

Over the past few weeks, the committee has been distributing forms to gather as much concrete information about specific damages and losses suffered by residents as a result of the outages and surges. While most people are seething at what they see as a total and protracted period of dismissal by Hydro Quebec, Sunstrum says that the ruckus raised by the community has at least reached the ears of some Hydro Quebec authorities.

"I think between now and then we're going to have a meeting with Hydro Quebec," he says. "We got an email today saying they would like to meet with us, the warden, the UPA and member of Parliament. I know what they're going to tell us: trees, trees, trees. But by then we'll have our information about the equipment and the mechanical end of things."

Two main possibilities are currently being examined by the committee, with the first being to continue their publicity campaign to generate sufficient local, regional and national media coverage to spur Hydro Quebec into action. Failing that, they are currently examining the possibility and process of filing a class-action lawsuit against the utility on behalf of affected island residents. For the latter to be effective, however, a strong on-paper record of damages needs to be established.

"Our two things now will be to continue to collect those data sheets as much as possible, and to get as good a handle as we can on the mechanical equipment problems. We've got to nail it all down on a sheet of paper so when we go to that meeting with Hydro Quebec and say 'here's what we have'."

rpaulsen@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/PRyanPaulsen