Connecticut utilities power line “protection zones” pre-emptively destroy trees
After multiple major storms in the region in recent years, Connecticut’s two electric utilities are implementing a new program to protect power lines. The companies are pre-emptively cutting down trees they deem are in danger of collapsing power lines but the initiative has drawn criticism from residents. Melinda Tuhus reports.
United Illuminating, or U-I, serves New Haven, Bridgeport, and 15 surrounding towns. Officials say falling trees and branches are responsible for 80 to 90 percent of power outages in storms. In the past few years there have been plenty, including two which left hundreds of thousands of customers statewide in the dark for up to eight days. The new plan is expected to reduce those outages by 25 to 50 percent.
Joe Thomas,UI Vice President explains what’s involved in its protocol. ”The utility protection zone allows us to define a work zone to try to make the area free of trees, except for low ornamental trees,” says Thomas. “It’s 8 feet on either side of the energized conductor, and from ground to sky.
Thomas says the plan is in response to public outcry over extended power outages. But many local residents are upset because the plan doesn’t distinguish between healthy and diseased or otherwise damaged trees. Thomas responds, “It’s about the location and proximity to the wires, because healthy trees do fall over and do take down the power lines during extreme weather conditions.” He acknowledges it’s less likely a healthy tree would fall down in a storm than a weak tree, and several residents among over a hundred who attended a recent meeting said reducing power restoration time by two to four days after a major storm wasn’t worth the tradeoff of losing trees forever
It’s this seeming take no prisoners approach that has many residents up in arms, from the New Haven Garden Club to suburban civic associations to previously uninvolved individual homeowners who have banded together to attend community meetings en masse, demanding changes in the protocol.
Whether the tree is on private or public property, the procedure is the same: utility workers first seek permission to remove the tree. According to UI officials, so far 90 percent of the homeowners they’ve visited have agreed. If property owners or municipal tree wardens object, they can appeal to the state’s regulatory agency, the Public Utility Regulatory Authority, or PURA. Likewise, the utility can appeal to PURA to back up its designation of targeted trees. And since PURA approved the utilities’ plan in the first place, opponents feel the deck is stacked against them.
The tree removal program is even further along in the 147 towns covered by the state’s other public utility, which also reports about a 90 percent compliance rate.
The loss of trees in urban areas could have an even greater negative impact, since cities suffer from dirtier air, are heat islands in the summer, and offer less privacy than suburban or rural areas. Urban areas also have higher levels of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas spurring climate change and an increase in the severe weather events that result in the very power outages that tree removal is supposed to mitigate.
Ashley Holmes, a junior at a New Haven high school who worked on a tree planting team last year, says the plan doesn’t make sense, “because people who planted these trees, not only this year but years before that, and they worked in snow and rain and cold and through, like, cement blocks in the ground.” Holmes adds, “It’s not fair to the people who request the trees who want their yards to look nicer, or people who live in New Haven who want cleaner air. I’m pretty proud of the work I did, because I helped my community, and not only my generation, but generations to come, and hopefully to make a teeny, tiny difference with the climate change issue.
The teen tree planters’ work is guided by the Urban Resources Initiative, which has planted 5,700 trees in New Haven over the past 18 years. Director Colleen Murphy-Dunning says taking down all the trees covered by the protocol will increase air conditioning costs in summer, and she has other concerns. “These communities where the trees are providing an important source of shade, where the community is often lower income, higher renter populations, they don’t have a voice and they will bear the burden of the increased energy and the increased rates.” Further, Murphy-Dunning says “ratepayers are paying for this work to be done.”
The work in UI territory is costing $100 million over eight years. Long Island and New Jersey have suffered even more than Connecticut from recent storm damage and power outages, but PSEG, the utility that covers both those areas, is taking a less drastic approach to tree-trimming. Utility spokeswoman Karen Johnson says they are continuing to cut trees under power lines in a V-shape, as Connecticut utilities used to do.
“We are not taking trees out. We understand that trees are an important part of our municipalities, and people love their trees. We just have to find a way to keep the trees away from the power lines.” Johnson adds, “The only time we will take a tree down is if it’s a hazard tree, if it’s rotting, if it’s in danger of falling down completely, we will work with the municipality to remove those trees.”
Another big meeting is planned in Hamden for March 6, where residents and town officials will once again press U-I for changes in its protocol. They are also filing comments with PURA in hopes of getting the regulations modified.