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Toronto Hydro rules out burying power lines as ice-storm recovery drags on

Enwin Utilities workers from Windsor, Ont., repair damaged power lines in Scarborough on Dec. 26, 2013.

KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Toronto Hydro is rejecting the idea of burying power lines to avoid a repeat of widespread electricity outages triggered by an ice storm this week, saying the approach is too expensive and would leave the grid vulnerable to other problems.

Anthony Haines, the utility's CEO, said about one-third of their infrastructure is currently buried, but that this costs "seven or eight times" as much. And he raised other concerns.

"It wasn't that long, it was months ago, when we were talking about floods, and impacts when you have electrical systems underneath the ground," he noted. "So there's no perfect answer to it. We need to be cognizant of both cost and the reliability of the system."

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With widespread power outages entering their sixth day in Toronto, Mr. Haines said it's not possible to say when roughly 50,000 customers – each of which typically represents several people – will have electricity restored.

At a Queen's Park press conference detailing the province's response to the ongoing problems, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne cited the need for better communication when asked about any lessons she would draw.

Winter weather continued to play havoc in Toronto, with four major power lines knocked out in the city overnight Wednesday due to snow and a forecast for high winds that could do more damage. New outages are to be expected, officials said.

Repairs are turning into a painstaking, house-by-house process, with Toronto Hydro crews helped by colleagues from other jurisdictions.

In spite of the lengthy repairs, officials voiced their satisfaction at how smoothly the recovery was going.

"I think what you're seeing … is just how effective, in a co-ordinated way and in a collaborative way, people can work and come together when you're prepared," said Barney Owens, with Ontario's Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management.

Mr. Haines said that Toronto Hydro's climate-change preparations had minimized the effects of the storm, citing beefed-up lines and more aggressive pruning of trees.

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Quebec seems to have reached a similar conclusion after its catastrophic 1998 ice storm, which toppled 24,000 utility poles and cut power to some people for weeks. Although the storm led to a commission that recommended burying hydro infrastructure, particularly in urban areas, little progress appears to have been made.

While pruning may be the cost-effective way to protect power lines, it can carry a public-relations price. "You can imagine … our arborists show up on the curb and knock on the door and say 'We're here to cut your branches down.' They're not necessarily a welcome news," he said. "So it's really finding that right balance. I think the changes that we made that are important is that we're tending to cut a broader area around the wires."

Also Thursday, additional repair crews from Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island arrived in New Brunswick to help reconnect thousands of people spending Boxing Day in the dark.

NB Power spokeswoman Deb Nobes said more than 100 crews from the province's utility are on their fifth day of repairing damage to homes and businesses in the province. As of Thursday afternoon, about 21,000 customers still didn't have power, with the largest concentrations in the Rothesay and St. Stephen areas of southwestern New Brunswick. In Quebec, 400 power outages remained late Sunday afternoon, affecting about 5,000 customers, a Hydro-Québec spokesman said.

In Toronto, the number of people staying at city-operated warming centres dropped to 850 on Wednesday night from a high of 1,000 on Christmas Eve.

Calls to the fire department and EMS remained far above normal, though they had dropped as well. But both agencies are facing the unique effects of the storm. A few fire stations were without power and crews so busy they may spend a whole shift taking calls, Chief Jim Sales said. And EMS Chief Paul Raftis described the difficulties of getting patients out of tall buildings without working elevators.

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With reports from Renata D'Aliesio and The Canadian Press

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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