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ENVIRONMENT REPORT – August: 22, 2003: Blackout in U.S., Canada - 2003-08-22

This is the VOA Special English Environment Report.

Last week millions of people in the United States and Canada suddenly found themselves in a whole new environment. Electricity stopped flowing along thousands of kilometers of power lines.

The blackout happened August fourteenth. It lasted for hours, and stretched across a huge area of the northeastern and midwestern United States. Among the cities darkened were New York; Detroit, Michigan; and Cleveland, Ohio. Toronto and Ottawa were the major Canadian cities affected. By Saturday, August sixteenth, power had returned almost everywhere. Economists say they expect no serious harm to the economy.

Officials said it appeared to have all started with a series of power line failures near Cleveland in the two hours before the blackout. Experts say at least one warning system also failed. It was not clear how much that warning would have helped. But, some say power line operators might have been able to act to contain the outage.

Officials said the failures created a series of sudden increases and decreases of power along lines throughout the rest of the system. Lines in other areas began to fail. Then, computers began to shut down whole power stations to protect them.

This week the Bush administration announced it would investigate the blackout jointly with Canada. American Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said it was important to examine all the facts before placing blame. He said the investigation will involve hundreds of officials, power system operators and power companies.

Some people say the Energy Department should not lead the investigation because its own policies may influence the findings. But a spokeswoman says the investigation will be independent and complete.

The North American Electric Reliability Council also began its own investigation. That group was set up after a nineteen-sixty-five outage on the East Coast to make sure supplies are dependable.

This was the largest blackout in American history. The last major one was in the West seven years ago. Officials have warned that the power system is getting old. Modern living demands more and more electricity. Experts say thousands of kilometers of new lines are needed.

All this will cost lots of money. But that is not the only issue. Some communities have fought efforts to build new high-voltage lines across their land.

This VOA Special English Environment Report was written by Caty Waver.