Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Greenburgh-Based Eco Activists Go to Washington to Speak for the Trees

From 11/9/10 Rivertown Patch.com:

Greenburgh-based environmentalists participate in FERC roundtable to argue against clear-cutting practices.
By Lizzie Hedrick

The Greenburgh Environmental Forum's LORAX Working Group chairperson Mark Gilliland appeared before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in Washington DC late last month to discuss the impact of federal regulations on state and regional electric utility companies' implementation of vegetation management plans surrounding active power lines. 

"I am very pleased that LORAX had this opportunity to present landowner and environmental concerns at the FERC technical roundtable," said Gilliland, an Irvington resident. "It is imperative that community concerns about property value loss, environmental damage and health impacts of these TVMPs are discussed in the context of both State and Federal regulations and policies."

In reaction to utility companies'—predominantly Consolidated Edison's—practices of clear-cutting trees along power transmission lines in Westchester and the Hudson Valley, a group of concerned residents and officials have banded together to push for stronger regulations preventing deforestation they believe is unnecessary and detrimental to our natural environment.

Facing FERC in the nation's capitol, LORAX representatives argued that the current vegetation management programs followed by Transmission Operators—or companies responsible for transmitting energy within a given region—in New York have lead to "severe economic, aesthetic and environmental damage along the transmission rights-of-way due to excessive removal and clear-cutting of all trees and vegetation, lack of adequate storm-water and erosion controls, over-reliance on herbicides, as well as insufficient or inadequate follow-up mitigation."

They said this "scorched earth" approach has  been extensively documented by LORAX, the Sierra Club and various municipalities in the region, as well as by both the Rockland and Westchester County Legislatures.

Appearing on the panel of the roundtable were representatives of the utility industry, state and federal regulatory agencies, utility arborists and landowner groups.

As expressed by Mark Hegerle, director of FERC's division of compliance for the Office of Electrical Reliability, the goal of the meeting was to uncover why utilities and state regulators claim "FERC made us do it" in response to public outcries about recent wide-spread tree removals. The discussion covered a wide range of topics including: Review of federal reliability standards, state approval and oversight of utility vegetation management plans, mandatory non-compliance fines, mitigation of environmental impacts and best practices for vegetation management in the rights of way.

"Viable solutions need to be found to prevent further damage—solutions ranging from revision of approved 'best practices' and reduction of non-compliance fines, to requiring detailed environmental reviews and responsible mitigation along the rights of way," Gilliland said.

Currently, utility companies are fined not only for allowing vegetation to exist within a certain spark zone of active power lines, but also for allowing plants to grow into a wider intermediate area further from the line. "We believe government agencies should reduce the penalty structure so that the utility companies don't feel the need to take such drastic measures," Gilliland said.

Though grateful for the opportunity to present his extensive research, Gilliland added that, in reality, changing the regulations will be difficult.

"Vegetation management plans for each utility company must be approved at both the state and federal levels," Gilliland said. "The second issue is oversight: Once the plans are approved, who is regulating their practices?"

According to Gilliland, nobody is.

He said the the state and government agencies responsible for overseeing the process are understaffed and have been "in reactive mode,"—spending all their time responding to community outrage over clear-cutting, rather that stopping it from happening.

"No vegetation implementation plan specifically mentions clear-cutting," Gilliland said. "But they all do it because it is cheaper to send someone in with a chainsaw than to have an arborist actively select which trees pose a real threat to power lines. It also means they have to come back less often to maintain the rights of way, which is also potentially cheaper."

Several other LORAX members, including Marvin Baum (Rockland County), Amy Kupferberg (Orange County) and Chris Crane, a member of the Westchester County Legislature, attended the FERC roundtable and lobbied strongly for changes to vegetation management regulations and policies. LORAX Working Group founding members include: Patricia Podolak (Yorktown), Susan Porcino (Ardsley), Anne Jaffe-Holmes (Irvington), David Bedell (Sleepy Hollow), and Walter Rodriquez (Yonkers).

"I certainly hope something was accomplished by attending the roundtable and presenting the home-owner and landowner's perspective so that FERC could have a more balanced picture of what's going on," Gilliland said. "What they will do with it, I'm not sure."

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