10/30/2014 03:51 EDT | Updated 12/30/2014 05:59 EST

Saskatchewan minister defends government's response to smart-meter debacle

REGINA - Saskatchewan's Opposition says the government put 400 homes at risk when it failed to remove smart meters known to have safety issues.

In the summer of 2012, the province began field testing the meters in Hanley, a town in south-central Saskatchewan. The test used a 3.2 model from the U.S. manufacturer Sensus.

The devices remained in Hanley until mid-October of that year — two months after a Philadelphia utility postponed its own program due to safety concerns with the same meters.

A spokeswoman for Philadelphia Electric Co., Kathy Menendez, said the company reached out in August 2012 to a number of utilities, including SaskPower, during an investigation.

"This was during the time of some overheating incidents," she told The Canadian Press on Thursday.

"At the time that we contacted SaskPower, they were only at the beginning of their deployment planning, so they did not have a lot of their meters installed," said Menendez, who added that there were no followup phone conversations.

NDP finance critic Trent Wotherspoon said the minister put Saskatchewan citizens at risk and used residents of Hanley as "guinea pigs."

"This minister is having information dragged out of him, instead of providing answers and accountability," he said Thursday.

The meters in Hanley were eventually replaced and, following the field test, SaskPower turned to a newer 3.3 model.

Last summer, the province ordered SaskPower to remove more than 100,000 of the newer models that had already been installed after reports of at least eight fires related to the devices.

An investigation report released earlier this week said customer safety wasn't enough of a priority.

The Opposition has been criticizing the government for its response to the safety issues and is calling for the resignation of Economy Minister Bill Boyd, who is also the minister responsible for SaskPower.

He said Thursday that the government was acting on advice from the Crown utility and has since been transparent about the issues plaguing the smart-meter program.

Boyd said the government was aware there were safety concerns with the earlier 3.2 model of meters. But he added that SaskPower received assurances that the newer model being used in Saskatchewan was safe.

The CEO and president of SaskPower, Robert Watson, resigned on Monday. Boyd said Watson has taken responsibility for the project's shortfalls.