Monday, May 10, 2010

Latest News Coverage - Hudson Independent

PSC Launches Review of Utility Tree-Clearing Policies
by Barrett Seaman | MAY 2 2010

Area citizens concerned with Con Edison’s aggressive vegetation management (chain saw clearing) policies designed to protect their power lines are greeting, with cautious optimism, the announcement this month by New York State Public Service Commission Chairman Gary Brown that the PSC is opening a process to review those policies.

The PSC is inviting all interested parties to submit comments by June 16, with a second opportunity to comment on submitted comments by July 6. The Commission will then hold a series of public hearings across the state. At the end of the process, which will take several months at least, the PSC staff will make recommendations that the five commissioners will then accept, reject or amend.

Acknowledging that such a review is itself no guarantee that the PSC will force significant changes on utilities like Con Edison, Mark Gilliland, one of the leaders of LORAX, a group if citizens organized late last year to press for reform, nonetheless called it “a victory—at least in terms of being a point on the map we had to get to. It’s an opening. It is significant that the PSC has responded.”

To better focus the review, the PSC followed its announcement with the publication of a list of nine questions around which it hopes responders will frame their suggestions. The questions revolve around the central issues of vegetation management: How should communities be notified of impending work? What input should they have in determining the extent of clearance around power lines? How could the process of cleaning up afterwards and restoring vegetation (mitigation) be improved? And who should pay for it?

“I would hope that people do not see this as an opportunity to complain,” said James Denn, spokesman for the PSC. “If they have specific complaints, we have a process for hearing those, and they should file right now” (rather than use this policy review as a forum in which to re-tell horror stories from the past year’s perceived decimation of trees in Westchester communities).

The PSC further stresses that participants in the review should bear in mind the commission’s primary responsibility, which is to insure delivery of electricity to factories and offices as well as private homes. “One of our paramount concerns,” said Denn, “is to insure reliability.”

Denn also stressed that the public pressure on utilities like Con Edison comes not only from environmentalists concerned about tree preservation but from power consumers and governments, both state and federal, that are mandated by law to keep power flowing. He noted the recent $450,000 fine and penalty imposed on New York Gas & Electric Co. for failing to remove a 55-foot-high spruce that fell on transmission lines in Sullivan County in July 2008.

Even before the review process gets underway, the PSC has indicated an interest in pursuing cost-sharing schemes whereby local communities pick up a share of the cost of increased mitigation—rather than have those costs redistributed through general rate hikes.

It is likely that local governments and citizens’ groups like LORAX will push back against any move by the commission to pass all costs off to them. They can be expected to argue that mitigation currently makes up a very small percentage of Con Edison’s operating budget and that there is room for increasing that budget without affecting rates or surcharging communities for the additional work. Moreover, according to Gilliland, some of the added costs this past year resulted from the utility’s failure to follow its own plan.

In preparation for submitting a cohesive set of suggestions to the PSC review, LORAX, the Sierra Club and local officials from around Westchester County held a roundtable meeting in late April.

While roundtable participants are heartened by the announcement of a review, they do not see it as a substitution for a broad range of efforts begun late last year.

“We may still have to go into arbitration to get Con Ed to clean up what they’ve already done,” said Gilliland, acknowledging that such a parallel process “could be viewed as a form of pressure.”

Ultimately, said the Irvington resident and local Tree Commission chair, “we may still pursue legislation” aimed at codifying how utilities go about their obligation to protect power lines.

“We want to be assured,” said Gilliland, “that they are doing their duty in those three key areas: notification, oversight and mitigation.”

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