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Blackout cause eludes investigators

A FirstEnergy high-tension electrical transmission tower in Rootstown, Ohio, is shown in this photo.
A FirstEnergy high-tension electrical transmission tower in Rootstown, Ohio, is shown in this photo.

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Industry and government officials Monday appeared to be only a little closer to discovering what triggered the blackout that struck the northeastern United States and portions of Canada last week.

Investigators focused on a power line failure near Cleveland as a possible cause, but the utility that owns the lines says it was not responsible for the blackout.

Meanwhile, businesses reopened and trains rolled across the affected area Monday.

Authorities lifted a boil-water order for southeastern Michigan residents, imposed after the outage shut down water system pumps.

Authorities in Cleveland, Ohio, lifted a similar boil order Sunday, but the city's Lake Erie beaches remained closed to swimmers because of high bacteria counts after a blackout-related overflow of raw sewage last week.

A "higher than usual" number of visits to New York City emergency rooms for diarrhea illnesses was possibly due to people eating food that spoiled during the blackout, not to contamination of the city's water supply, which tested safe, the municipal health department said.

Subway trains and Amtrak service were reported operating on time at Manhattan's Penn Station and at Grand Central Terminal.

In Toronto, Canada, subway service was "running beautifully" after restarting Monday morning, said a transit commission spokeswoman. The system carries about 1.1 million passengers daily, she said.

Residents of Ontario province also appeared to be heeding calls to conserve energy, using only about three-quarters of the 22 to 24 megawatts of power consumed on a typical summer Monday, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Independent Market Operator said.

Industry and federal officials continued efforts to determine what caused the massive blackout, which spread across eight states and portions of Canada in about three minutes Thursday afternoon.

Initial attention focused on three power lines owned by FirstEnergy Corp. in Ohio that tripped one after another about an hour before the outage. The alarm system at FirstEnergy failed to notify operators of the problem. (Blackout timeline)

But FirstEnergy and its regional overseer, the Midwestern Independent System Operator, said there were other problems outside their area at the same time.

"What happened on Thursday afternoon is a very complex situation, far broader than the power line outages we experienced on our system," First Energy said in a statement Monday.

The company said its data and reports from other utilities showed "unusual voltage and frequency fluctuations and load swings" before the blackout.

"Contrary to speculation, these unexplained conditions were detected as early as noon on Thursday in the broad region, not just within our system," the utility said.

David Nevius, senior vice president of the North American Electric Reliability Council, or NERC, said it was shortsighted this early in the investigation to point blame at FirstEnergy or the MISO.

"This is much more complicated than just a few lines in Ohio or the control system at that utility," he said.

Nevius said the council -- a nonprofit industry group formed after the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965 -- was "poring over tons and tons of data" to figure out what caused the blackout.

The massive outage has prompted calls for the federal government to step in to set standards for regional power grids. Currently, utilities are bound only by voluntary standards developed by the NERC, Nevius said.

President Bush called Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham from his Texas ranch to discuss the blackout probe Monday, said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

"The president continued to emphasize the need to find out what caused the blackout, and to do so as quickly as possible," McClellan said.

McClellan said Bush wants to find a "comprehensive solution" to the problems highlighted by the outage.

"What's most important right now is that we move forward to act on mandatory and enforceable reliability standards, that we move forward to upgrade and expand our transmission capacity," McClellan said.

"We need to improve our infrastructure to meet the demand that continues to increase."

An administration-backed energy bill containing those provisions has been stalled in Congress since 2001, deadlocked over a measure that would open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. (Full story)

McClellan said calls from some Democrats to drop that from the bill to pass an overhaul of the national power grid were "ridiculous."

"I think that what you're seeing is political posturing. The president's focused on seeking solutions," he said. "We need comprehensive solutions, not patchwork crisis management."

But Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, said the problems facing the country's electrical distribution system need to be addressed quickly.

"It needs to happen now," she said. "We can't wait anymore, because it's going to happen somewhere else if we don't get on the stick."

"This is the largest blackout in U.S. history," Granholm said. "If that is not a signal that we have got a problem that needs to be fixed, I don't know what is."

CNN correspondents Suzanne Malveaux, Jason Carroll and John Zarrella contributed to this report.

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