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ACC set to hear public on disconnection rules as heat-related death investigations rise

Posted at 10:22 PM, Jun 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-26 01:22:00-04

Maricopa County Public Health is investigating 73 suspected heat-related deaths through the week ending June 19, according to newly released data. That number is more than double the amount during the same time in 2020.

Three additional heat-related deaths have been confirmed and ABC15 has learned that one of the deaths occurred after a power disconnection.

ABC15 has not been able to confirm the circumstances leading up to the disconnection.

However, according to the medical examiner's report Benito Ruiz De Lara, 63, was found inside of a shed that he was using as a residence. His primary cause of death was determined to be hypertensive cardiovascular disease with a contributory cause of death of environmental heat exposure.

The report noted that he was "found dead and decomposing approximately two days after having electricity service disconnected. This occurred during a period of significantly elevated environmental temperatures."

Ruiz De Lara was found on May 13, so according to the timeline in the report, the power disconnection would likely have occurred on May 11.

According to data from the National Weather Service the forecasted high on May 11 was 96. The official high recorded was 95. It is not a temperature considered extremely hot in the Valley but for people with underlying conditions--especially those involving the heart--experts say it can be dangerous.

"When you're getting hot, your body is trying to pump more of its blood to the surface of the skin to help release heat from the skin. That means your heart has to work harder and pump harder," said Jennifer Vanos an assistant professor with the ASU School of Sustainability. She studies the effects of heat on the body.

Vanos says there is no standard temperature at which heat becomes dangerous and is dependent on an individual's age, illnesses, medications, and exposure.

"95 is hot. 100 is hot, when you compare it to 115. It doesn't seem hot, but they're still hot for some people. And we have seen indoor heat deaths in the valley down to 85 degrees Fahrenheit outside in past years," she said.

There is a debate going on right now about how hot is too hot for people not to have electricity in their homes. Disconnection rules being considered by Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) would allow power companies to choose between two policies:

  • no shutoffs between June 1 and October 15 or,
  • no shutoffs on days forecasted to be more than 95 degrees

Consumer advocate Stacey Champion said a heat-related death on a 95-degree day is an example of why the proposed rules are not sufficient.

"The goal is to protect people and keep people alive. We know that many people die indoors when it is above 90 degrees," she said.

On Wednesday ACC chairwoman Lea Marquez Peterson docketed a letter directing regulated utilities to "provide all indoor heat-related deaths, incidents, or hospital admissions they are aware of" as soon as possible.

The request was made ahead of the first of two public comment sessions the Commission will hold about the rules on Monday, June 28 at 10 a.m. A session will be held on July 1 at 10 a.m.
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Docket Number: RU-00000A-19-0132