- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

Utility regulators are investigating whether inadequate tree trimming contributed to widespread power outages in the Washington area during Tropical Storm Isabel in September, similar to the cause of the Aug. 14 outage that left much of the Northeast United States in the dark.

A report on whether power companies prepared appropriately for the storm is expected within a month.

Meanwhile, a U.S.-Canadian task force reported Wednesday that the nation’s worst blackout began Aug. 14 when three power lines failed in Ohio after being damaged by tree limbs.

The report said utility company operators at FirstEnergy Corp. did not respond properly, thus allowing electricity from the failed lines to flow into other lines, causing an overload that cascaded throughout the Northeast electrical system. Eventually, the failure cut off electricity to 50 million people in eight states and Canada.

In the Washington area, power companies say Isabel’s 60 mph winds made some power failures nearly unavoidable.

Heavy rain before the storm saturated root structures, making it easier for high winds to knock thousands of trees down onto overhead electrical lines. In addition, drought in the preceding two years weakened tree trunks.

“It didn’t take that much wind to topple them,” said Bob Dobkin, spokesman for Potomac Electric Power Co. (Pepco).

“It’s nature,” Mr. Dobkin said. “No amount of trimming would have prevented the trees from coming down.”

Critics of the power company have blamed inadequate trimming as one of the causes of the days-long outages.

Environmental rules allow power companies to trim no more than a one-fourth of the crown — or leaves and limbs — of a tree, he said.

“We do it on a regular basis,” Mr. Dobkin said.

Parts of the tree can still hang over power lines even if the leaves are trimmed away, creating a risk of hitting the lines if the tree falls. Trees on private property may not hang over the lines at all but could hit the lines if they fall.

The company’s Isabel report filed with the Maryland Public Service Commission last month showed that its spending on “vegetation management” has declined.

Pepco spent $7.5 million on vegetation management in 1999, rising to $8.5 million in 2000, then $7.7 million in 2001 and $6.6 million last year, the report said.

Simpson Weather Associates, a private atmospheric research company hired by Pepco to investigate weather conditions contributing to the outages, largely agreed with the company that several hazards converged to knock down power lines.

“There were a whole bunch of reasons that came together with this storm,” said Steve Greco, meteorologist for the Charlottesville company. “There was a wet time before the storm and it would lead to trees being more easily uprooted.”

Kenneth Schrad, spokesman for the Virginia State Corporation Commission, said any blame for human error will be determined in an upcoming report by the commission.

The Maryland Public Service Commission has scheduled hearings for Dec. 15 and 16 in Baltimore on whether Baltimore Gas and Electric’s preparations were adequate.

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