AZ Utility Regulators Ignored Scientists for Months. Now They Want Their Help

Arizona Corporation Commissioners ask questions of Arizona Public Service Company executive Don Brandt in September.
Arizona Corporation Commissioners ask questions of Arizona Public Service Company executive Don Brandt in September. Tom Tingle/Arizona Republic pool camera
For months, Arizona regulators tasked with developing new utility shutoff rules appeared to dig in their heels at the prospect of soliciting advice from scientists and public health experts, despite public requests for them to do so.

That changed earlier this week. On Tuesday, October 29, staff at the Arizona Corporation Commission contacted Liza Kurtz, a PhD student at Arizona State University who studies extreme heat, among other subjects, as well as Stephanie Elzenga, administrative counsel at the state Department of Health Services, a spokesperson for the commission said.

That outreach followed a Phoenix New Times article, published on October 28, that detailed criticisms of the Corporation Commission for failing to solicit scientific opinions, data, and research on key issues like the threat to human safety from terminating power during extreme heat. Emails show that staff ignored offers to help made months ago by scientists.

Kurtz confirmed that she had been contacted by the Corporation Commission. Chris Minnick, a spokesperson for the Department of Health Services, did not respond by deadline to a query asking whether the Corporation Commission had been in touch.

Although the lines of communication are now open, the Corporation Commission still does not appear to be actively soliciting input from experts. Rather, emails and comments suggests that they have passively told such experts that they are welcome to offer their input.

Emails show that Kurtz was first in touch with the Corporation Commission in mid-June, when she offered the assistance of several ASU researchers "in informing the conversation around utility shutoffs." Steve Olea, the policy adviser to Chairman Bob Burns, responded to say that he was forwarding Kurtz's email to staff.

From there, no one responded.

Four months later, on October 26, Kurtz emailed staff at the Corporation Commission again. She sent them a friendly reminder that ASU researchers "would love to be able to support the ACC [Corporation Commission] and APS [Arizona Public Service Company] in their future decision-making."

click to enlarge Corporation Commission Chairman Bob Burns. - TOM TINGLE/ARIZONA REPUBLIC POOL CAMERA
Corporation Commission Chairman Bob Burns.
Tom Tingle/Arizona Republic pool camera
She added, "Part of ASU's mission is to pursue research that benefits our community, and we want to prioritize developing research that might be useful to decision-makers. If a research collaboration is potentially of interest to ACC staff, please feel free to reach out to us at any time."

Three days later a staffer at the Corporation Commission forwarded Kurtz's email to an executive consultant for the utilities division, who sent Kurtz a less-than-specific invitation to participate.

"Thank you for your interest in the disconnection docket," it began. "We are looking to have health experts participate in future workshops/stakeholder meetings to generally discuss the impacts of terminating electric/gas utility service on a customer’s health." The email promised that "all interested parties," including public health experts, would be able to participate, and that Kurtz and her colleagues were "more than welcome."

David Hondula, a senior sustainability scientist at ASU who studies extreme heat and health, told New Times he was hopeful that the Corporation Commission would collaborate with other sectors on the matter of shutoffs.

"This is a prime opportunity for Arizona to showcase how different sectors can work together to protect the public from dangerous risks like heat and power failures," he said.

Nicole Capone, a spokesperson for the Corporation Commission, told New Times via email, "We are working to identify and solicit participation from public health experts and we want to reiterate that any interested party is welcome to provide public comment either in the online docket or at a future workshop."

So far, staff at the Corporation Commission have held two workshops soliciting input from stakeholders — namely, utilities — on shutoff rules.

The latest draft of those rules would prohibit terminations above 105 degrees Fahrenheit, which critics and experts say is too high. If those rules passed, Arizona's threshold would be the highest in the nation among the few states with extreme-heat shutoff protections. Most states set the limit at 95 degrees. 

The next workshop has not yet been scheduled. "Once a date and time for the workshop is set, all interested stakeholders and parties will be contacted to participate," Capone said.

Capone also said that on October 23, which happens to be the same day that New Times first asked the Corporation Commission whether it had reached out to experts for their input on the health impacts of shutoffs, the commission reached out to April Shaw, a staff attorney for the Western Region of the Network for Public Health Law, which is housed at ASU.

On October 29, the day after the story came out, Shaw sent an email to Jennifer Vanos, a senior sustainability scientist who studies how heat affects the human body, asking if she'd be willing to "provide guidance on temperature related health impacts of termination of service for public utilities."

Shaw wrote that she had "recently" received a request from the Corporation Commission.

"They have questions such as what types of measures to use, for example, specific temperature or the NOAA’s [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] heat index — for determining when cutting off services for non-payment would be appropriate," Shaw explained in her email. She also asked Vanos to recommend colleagues.

Vanos told New Times that she had not yet sent Shaw suggestions, although she said she still could.

On Wednesday afternoon, Shaw also contacted Hondula, asking if he'd be "interested in serving as a resource for the [Corporation Commission."

Shaw declined to comment to New Times for this story, deferring to the Corporation Commission.

Until the Corporation Commission settles on permanent rules, a moratorium on utility shutoff that was established in June remains in place, according to Capone. However, that moratorium is effectively irrelevant for now, because it bans shutoffs from June 1 through October 15.

This story has been updated from its original version.
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.