Government role in deadly US house fires


Richard Moore

As the carbon economy comes into existence, we’ll see a lot more of this kind of suffering.


March 20 hearing of the Citizens Inquiry into the Dexter Avenue Fire

The role of the government in deadly US house fires

By Andrea Peters 

23 March 2010
Posted below is one of several investigative reports presented at the March 20 inquiry into the Dexter Avenue fire. In coming days, World Socialist Web Site will post other reports and testimony from the Citizens Inquiry.

In the aftermath of every deadly house fire in homes where the utilities have been shut off, local and state politicians respond by issuing statements, always extremely brief, expressing their regret over the “tragedy.” They claim that the government offers programs that help people with their energy bills and imply that the fire victims are at fault for failing to seek aid.
When asked to comment about March 2 fire that took place on Bangor Street killing three of Sylvia Young’s children, a spokeswoman from Governor Granholm’s office insisted that Young did not reach out for help and repeatedly told this investigator, “The governor is committed to protecting Michigan families.”
In reality, however, Granholm, as well as Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, are committed to protecting DTE’s profits.
The Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) is the state agency charged with regulating the utility industry. Its commissioners are appointed directly by Governor Granholm and work closely with her office. The MPSC not only sets the rates charged by utility companies, it also regulates and approves their shut-off policies.
Len Singer, a spokesman for DTE Energy, told the World Socialist Web Site, “Virtually every piece of business we do, every rule and regulation we have as far as operating the company [and] working with our customers is under the purview and oversight of the Michigan Public Service Commission. So our billing practices, our practices that we utilize for collection, [and] any practices we have relative to terminating service—all of those are sanctioned by the MPSC…. Reviewed and sanctioned by them.”
There are no laws that prevent DTE, or the state’s other major privately owned utility, CMS Energy, from shutting off people’s utilities for non-payment. The only limitation placed on these companies is that gas and electricity cannot be cut to the homes of those aged 65 and older between December 1 and March 31, if the resident is enrolled in the state’s Winter Protection Plan.
The Winter Protection Plan, which is only available to seniors, those receiving certain kinds of federal assistance, and households who make up to 150% of the federal poverty level, does not actually help people pay their bills.
The MPSC web site describes the program in the following manner: “Winter Protection allows eligible low-income customers to make monthly payments of at least 7% of their estimated annual bill, along with a portion of any past-due amount, November through March, and avoid shut-off during that time even if their bills are higher. Eligible senior citizens participating in Winter Protection are not required to make specific monthly payments between November 1 and March 31, but are encouraged to do so to avoid higher bills when the protection period ends. At the end of the protection period, both low-income and senior citizens taking part in the plan must pay off any money owed in installments between April and November in addition to the current bill.”
THAW (The Heat and Warmth Fund), the other program that provides help, is a non-profit organization whose board is filled with executives from DTE and other energy companies. In order to get any aid from THAW, which gives people small amounts of money towards their bills, they must meet the following conditions:
• You must live in the right part of the state; the entire state is not covered.

• Your service must be shut off, having been cut during the past year, not earlier.

• Your balance must be more than $125 for single accounts or $250 for combined accounts.

• You must have verifiable income, and it must not exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty level. If your income is 150 percent of the poverty level, you are to apply not to THAW, but to the Michigan Department of Human Services.

• If you have received help in the last year, you are ineligible.

• You MUST agree to and stay on a budget plan arranged with the utility company. If you do not, you will lose all past, present, and future aid from THAW and have to pay back all the amount owed.