Sunday, January 24, 2010

PSC on Hot Seat in Con Edison Tree Cutting Episodes

The Yorktown Examiner Jan 12th edition ran an article (page 5) on Con Edison and the transmission lines - by Martin Wilbur:

Westchester residents affected by what they believe has been overly aggressive tree-cutting by Con Edison near transmission lines are demanding answers from officials of the agency responsible for overseeing utilities.

Last Saturday, representatives from the Public Service Commission met with residents in two central Westchester communities in hopes of receiving explanations in response to the utility’s recent string of controversial tree-cutting episodes from Yonkers to Yorktown.

In 2005, the federal government established guidelines to prevent a repeat of the massive August 2003 blackout that darkened nearly the entire northeast and Ontario, Canada. The blackout was traced to trees that came in contact with transmission lines in Ohio that triggered the massive outage.

In New York State, utilities like Con Edison have been required to file and execute vegetation-management programs with the PSC to make sure there is no future threat to power lines, said Jim Austin, deputy director of the commission’s office of electric, gas and water.

“Improved reliability will come from much more aggressive right-of-way maintenance,” Austin said. “People are very ticked off when power goes out and people get ticked off when trees are no longer there. It’s a very fine balancing act.”

Residents who turned out for the well attended meetings Saturday afternoon in Greenburgh and Pleasantville bitterly protested what they said were misleading notifications that suggested there would be mostly tree trimming rather than tree removal. They also contended that there was no justification for the extensive amount of removal, arguing many trees that were cut throughout the county posed no threat to the power line.

“The trees would have to grow to 500 feet tall to interfere with the transmission lines,” said Marina Gaeleano of Pleasantville.

Others argued that the PSC has done a poor job in regulating Con Edison.

“This is a directive, a strategy that is used to obstruct,” said Jason Saipan of Greenburgh.

Austin and David Morrell, who devised the PSC’s tree-removal guidelines, said that utilities may do what is necessary to maintain power lines within rights of way or if the land is owned by other governmental facilities. They would need permission to gain access to private property. Austin said that utilities do not replace lost trees except on private land.

However, residents have argued that while tree cutting may have been done legally on rights of way, excessive clearing has destroyed beautiful vistas, eliminated screening and buffers for noise and has contributed to plummeting property values. Greenburgh resident Kristina Bracken said Con Edison cleared dozens of trees just beyond her property line that screened her from the Sprain Brook Parkway.

“What they did had nothing to do with protecting us from power outages,” she said.

State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who organized the two meetings last weekend with the PSC staff, said that she had learned via her colleagues in Albany that there have been recurring communication breakdowns between utilities, municipalities and homeowners throughout the state.

While Stewart-Cousins did not rule out tighter regulation of the utilities, she said having forthright public discussions is a good first step toward highlighting what has gone wrong.

“If there needs to be stronger regulation, if there needs to be stronger communication, coordination, whatever is necessary, this is a very strong start and I think everyone is committed to making sure we get the changes that are necessary,” Stewart-Cousins said.

PSC spokesman Jim Denn said the commission takes the reaction from the various communities seriously and will take into consideration the information gathered on its site visit.

“Certainly, this visit has been very useful for use because it gives as a visual representation of what the issues are that the community’s concerned about,” Denn said. “The commission has great interest in making sure that, first and foremost, the utility is doing what it should be doing. Nothing more, nothing less.”

While Greenburgh and Pleasantville seem at the forefront of the fight against the clear-cutting, Yorktown has largely remained in the background, but that may change with the town’s new administration.

Supervisor Susan Siegel, who was not present at Saturday’s tour, has signed on as liaison to the town’s Utilities Oversight Committee, which is headed by Dr. Patricia Podolak, a longstanding supporter and collaborator of Siegel’s.

“I want to deal with it,” Siegel said recently. “We want to do something because the previous board did nothing.”

Podolak, who was present for Saturday’s tour, sent a summary of the meeting to town officials.

“What appears to be lacking,” Podolak wrote, “is a good understanding of the issues and an organized plan of action.”

Podolak went on to urge members of the board to request a “regional working group” be formed in Westchester County as soon as possible.

“All the affected municipalities in the county need to be heard on these matters and should not be left out,” Podolak wrote, adding that Rockland County may also be able to join the effort.

“It’s not a bad thing. We need to get everybody together,” Bianco said, adding, “The problem is nobody comes unless it’s in their community.”

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