Monday, July 14, 2008

CINCINNATI | Maureen O’Neill and her neighbors watched despairingly this spring as contractors chopped down trees to protect power lines near their homes.

When they threatened her beloved white pines, Ms. O’Neill joined other residents battling their power company over its pruning and felling of trees near transmission lines.

Residents complained to town officials that the company cut their trees without proper authority.

It’s one of several such showdowns in the U.S. this year that have led to lawsuits, legislation, protests and, occasionally, compromise.

“It was like your house was robbed,” said Ms. O’Neill, 37, who saved her pines in Blauvelt, N.Y., in New York City’s northern suburbs, but lost a swath of tall bushes and saplings on a utility right of way that shielded her back yard from a road. “You just feel so violated.”

Utilities say aggressive pruning and cutting is a necessary response to federal pressure for more reliable power.

Contact between trees and power lines contributed to the 2003 blackout across the Northeast, which cut electricity for 50 million customers in eight states and Ontario.

Until then, tree-trimming along power lines had been largely unregulated, but a federal oversight agency now mandates standards that took effect last year.

The new rules apply to high-voltage transmission lines, which feed electricity from substations and service towers to the lower-voltage distribution lines that run along most streets.

A branch or tree that downs a distribution line can cut power to a street or neighborhood, but a similar problem on a transmission line can affect all of the connecting distribution lines and many more customers.

The North American Electric Reliability Corp. developed the rules with oversight by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“They say ‘Thou shalt never have an outage from a grow-in,’” and utilities take heed because violators can face multimillion-dollar fines, said Randy Miller, president-elect of the Utility Arborists Association and director of vegetation management for PacifiCorp, which provides power in six Western states.

Last month, federal regulators issued the first round of violations under the new rules, fining Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. $180,000 and Iowa-based MidAmerican Energy Co. $75,000, respectively.

Maryland lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to pass tighter regulations on pruning by utilities and criticized Baltimore Gas and Electric for aggressive trimming in Baltimore’s suburbs.

Most utilities follow industry standards outlined by the International Society of Aboriculture, but the best pruning and cutting practices aren’t always aesthetically pleasing.

“It’s not just the convenience of the circuit, but people’s lives, people’s livelihoods depend on that power,” said Geoff Kempter, manager of technical services for Asplundh Tree Expert Co., a utility contractor based near Philadelphia.

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