Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Public Service Commission as Guilty as Con Ed

From Nov 17-23, 2009 Pleasantville Examiner - editorial page:

Last week’s clear-cutting of dozens of trees by Con Edison in Pleasantville should be a very troubling sign to everyone. Whether you’re a hardcore environmentalist or would simply like to see as much beauty and parkland preserved as possible, this latest chapter isn’t just an indictment of a utility that seems to throw its weight around with impunity but of the Public Service Commission as well.

What Con Edison’s tree removal contractor did on Nov. 8—a Sunday, no less—near Nannahagen Park was a travesty. Some trees had been on the site for more than a century. Others had been planted within the past 10 years and the village had spent hard-earned tax dollars making sure the park had a thriving ecosystem.

But make no mistake about it, this was no isolated incident or accident. This has beenCon Edison’s modus operandi since the PSC issued its 2005 order. Utilities must aggressively cut vegetation to eliminate any chance that tree limbs can interfere with power lines to avoid a repeat of the massive August 2003 blackout. As a result, the PSC directed all utilities providing electric power throughout the state to devise a plan. The scenario that played out Nov. 8 is one that has been repeated in municipalities in Westchester and presumably throughout the Hudson Valley. Con Edison properly notifies adjacent land owners and municipal officials, makes it appear as though nothing more than a little bit of housecleaning will be done and a
week or two later local residents are left with an environmental disaster on their hands.

Pleasantville’s latest battle is a replay of what Greenburgh, Hastings and Yonkers have experienced in recent years, according to State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins. The Examiner found that portions of Yorktown in northern Westchester and Clarkstown in Rockland County had similar fights. If a handful of municipalities that have been violated can be found so easily with a few quick phone calls, how many more around the state have seen their landscapes pockmarked by the utilities?

There are several problems with the “vegetation management” plans as the PSC likes to refer to this clear-cutting. A utility, in this case Con Edison, misleads local communities into thinking this is a relatively minor clearing or trimming of trees. There is no hint of the massive destruction that’s to come. Next, while the PSC’s order four years ago provided fairly clear guidelines of maximum tree heights depending on the proximity to power lines, the utilities appear to go overboard and are likely destroying trees that should be trimmed to avoid the expense of having to go back out and repeat the process in a few years. Finally, and perhaps most frustrating, is that the PSC, the entity that is supposed to watch out for the public good, has turned
a blind eye to the problems caused by this devastation. Until the PSC places clear and reasonable limits on what the utilities can and can’t do, hundreds of thousands of more trees will be lost, bringing all of the unwanted consequences that clear-cutting causes.

If Albany functioned like it should, then perhaps the state legislature could see fit to force the PSC to tighten up and actually look out for the public welfare. But with lawmakers unable to keep their own house in order, much less balance a budget, looking to Albany for help is an exercise in futility. Municipalities and residents are left on their own to remain vigilant. By demanding mitigation, communication and employing a full-court press on their state lawmakers perhaps the legislature will see the light and demand changes in how the PSC operates. If not, then the alternative is staring everyone in the face at Nannahagen Park.

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