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Utilities, Customers At Odds Over Downed Trees


Millions of people lost power in the Derecho storm that lashed the mid-Atlantic last month, and a big reason for that was trees falling on power lines. Utility companies have been criticized for that. So some have been aggressively removing trees to prevent future damage and they're getting criticized for that, too, as Sacha Pfeiffer of member station WBUR reports.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: There's a strange sight rolling through Boston's suburbs lately. It's called a Brontosaurus, and it's a massive tree-cutting machine.


PFEIFFER: The Brontosaurus has a long mechanical arm with a clawed blade at the end. It can gobble up and take down a 60-foot tree in just seconds, like a dinosaur devouring its prey.


PFEIFFER: Crews with the largest utility system in New England are using it to clear trees near many of its power lines in Massachusetts.

Meg McConnell, who lives in the town of Wayland, looks on with shock, as trees bordering driveways, even on private property, are targeted for removal.

MEG MCCONNELL: I wept. I wept this morning leaving my house. God, this looks awful.

PFEIFFER: The utility calls this a vegetation management program. Similar tree cutting by other power providers is happening around the country. And many residents are upset over what they say is a drastic change in utility companies' approach to tree maintenance.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE TOM CONROY: Is this overkill? I think so.

PFEIFFER: Tom Conroy is a Massachusetts legislator who wants changes. The local utility, NSTAR, used to keep a buffer zone of trees around its high-voltage lines but is now clearing much more: its entire 250-foot right-of-way. Some land bordering the power lines has been stripped almost bare. A scorched earth policy, one resident called it.

Again, Representative Conroy.

CONROY: Are they being overzealous in terms of taking their legal rights and the easement they have to its Nth degree? Yes, I think they're going too far.

PFEIFFER: Utility companies are certainly going farther than they used to. Before 2003, they were more lax about tree trimming. But then a tree that hit a major power line in Ohio contributed to a blackout affecting 55 million people in the Northeast and Canada.

NATHAN MITCHELL: That was a huge issue for the industry and a turning point.

PFEIFFER: Nathan Mitchell is with the American Public Power Association, which represents the country's community-owned utilities. He says after that incident, federal regulators put new guidelines in place for more extensive cutting near overhead wires. And while the feds didn't used to have much enforcement power, Mitchell says they do now.

MITCHELL: They have fines that are up to $1 million a day.

PFEIFFER: So there's real incentive for utilities to cut, cut, cut. So far, power companies from Tennessee to Kansas to California all have been hit with six-figure fines.

The Edison Electric Institute is a national trade association for investor-owned utilities. Spokesman Jim Owen says there's a constant, contentious push-and-pull between utilities and their customers who like their tree-lined neighborhoods but also want reliable power.

JIM OWEN: Obviously, no one wants to have their lovely trees trimmed, but we are required to do that vegetation management and, of course, when we don't do it properly bad things can happen.

PFEIFFER: And he only half-jokes that in today's technology-soaked world, people lose their patience for being without electricity...

OWEN: When your iPhone battery goes down and you can't charge it.


PFEIFFER: Back in Wayland, Massachusetts, resident Robert Noa wishes the utilities would cut more selectively, or just lop the tops of off trees like they used to. Instead, he believes many power companies have decided that having no trees is the best vegetation management policy of all.

ROBERT NOA: Well, I think there is a neighbors-be-damned, let's look at the dollars-and-cents aspect of what we're doing here. They can come in, they can clear-cut, and they can effectively forget about us for the next three decades.

PFEIFFER: But utility companies say taking down trees entirely is the only way to guarantee no large-scale outages, and as each new storm topples more trees, they get even more vigilant.

For NPR News, I'm Sacha Pfeiffer in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.

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