PUC change means CMP must negotiate on trees outside its right of way

CMP line upgrade
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Crews from Asplundh Tree Expert Co. work on expanding CMP's power line corridor near Merrill Road in Lewiston in this 2011 file photo. The Maine Public Utilities order that authorized the expansion also directed CMP on taking trees outside its rights of way for all power-line corridors in Maine.

HALLOWELL — Maine has maple, elm, hemlock, pine and spruce, to name a few. But add to the many varieties of trees two other distinct characteristics: "hazard" trees and "danger" trees. Each presents potential harm to Maine's power lines, and to Mainers' access to electricity.

CMP tree definitions


Hazard tree:

 . . . means any tree that is structurally unsound that could strike a conductor upon failure; examples include dead trees, unsightly trees after pruning, unhealthy trees, trees with weakened crotches, trees leaning over or towards the wires, or species known to have a high failure rate."

Danger tree:

. . . is defined as a tree that if it failed could contact the conductors.


— Definitions per CMP September 2012 letter responding to August Maine PUC order. 

The Citizens' Voice, Mark Moran / AP

Jason Lazinski, a lineman for Asplundh, cuts a tree away from power lines on Ferguson Avenue in Dallas, Pa., on Oct. 30. New definitions in Maine make clear which trees CMP can cut to protect the power supply and which they must have permission from landowners to cut down.

To limit that harm, and to protect landowners' property, a pending agreement between the Maine Public Utilities Commission and Central Maine Power Co. will — if signed — make it clear CMP cannot cut trees outside the company's rights of way along power lines without prior landowner agreement.

The definitions were refined during a two-hour meeting on Nov. 13 between CMP, Maine's largest power transmission company, and the state regulatory agency, which oversees public utilities. The public can comment on the new definitions until Nov. 30. 

Sometime after that, likely in December or January, the Maine PUC will vote to determine whether CMP has satisfied the commission with its new definitions, said Paulina Collins, a spokeswoman for the Maine PUC.

Despite the new agreement, CMP spokesman John Carroll said the company is still wary it could be held liable and even fined, under federal law, for power outages caused by downed trees — even trees outside CMP's jurisdiction.

"We still have a certain level of anxiety," Carroll said. "We think this could create situations that we may in the future not be making the right, appropriate efforts to comply with federal standards. We've made an argument, the commission has just disagreed and we are just moving on."

That federal law, the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005 came in the wake of one of the country's worst blackouts in 2003, in which some 50 million people in the eastern United States lost power. That outage, the result of a cascading series of events, was ultimately blamed on a downed tree.  

Maine was not affected by that outage, but the new federal law affects Maine as part of a an effort to ensure reliability nationwide.

The law also established the National Electric Reliability Council and put more responsibility for trees on transmission companies like CMP. Under the law, they can be held liable for major, avoidable outages and fined based on their impacts.

Carroll said that's what's troubling for CMP, but going forward it will document the danger and hazard trees it cannot obtain permission to remove, in hopes it will provide the company some protection.

The new agreement between CMP and the PUC stems from a June 2008 order that authorized the construction of CMP's more than $1 billion power transmission system upgrade, known as the Maine Power Reliability Program.

The ongoing project stretches from Eliot in southern Maine to Orrington near Bangor and involves major power-line improved reliability and adding new transmission lines.

Earlier this year, the PUC determined that CMP's working definitions for hazard and danger trees and how they would be removed did not appear to be in compliance with its June 2008 order permitting the power corridor expansion.

In August 2012, the PUC ordered CMP to become compliant with the June 2008 ruling, which in essence said any trees not on CMP property and outside of the company's rights of way could not be removed or pruned without the tree owner's permission.

Both the PUC and CMP said the language change was meant to protect landowner rights going forward.

Under its operation manuals, CMP appeared to reserve the right to cut trees outside its rights of way if those trees posed the potential of falling onto power lines, creating a danger for line workers or disrupting the power supply lines.

In some places along the route, including in Lewiston, CMP worked with landowners and local officials to either reroute its proposed power corridor or to employ "engineered" solutions, including 140-foot-tall transmission towers that would carry the power lines above trees. In Lewiston the cost of this was accommodated by a tax-increment financing program offered to CMP by the city.

Carroll said numerous stipulations, from a variety of people and interests groups, were negotiated into the original agreement that set up the Maine Power Reliability Program. Those stipulations covered everything from setting up pilot projects for all-electric vehicles to how trees and other vegetation outside CMP's power corridor could be managed.

The trees that pose the most concern for CMP are those outside the rights of way but tall enough to land on a power line if they were to come down. For example, a tree 60 feet from the right-of-way boundary that's 100 feet tall could still fall onto the line. If that tree is dead or dying or otherwise in a condition that presents a danger in normal weather conditions, it would be identified as a hazard tree.

Other healthy trees that under normal weather conditions do not pose any threat are considered danger trees, simply because they could, in the right conditions, fall and damage the transmission lines and interrupt service.

Under the new definition, those trees would not necessarily be candidates to be cut down, Carroll said.

There has to be some rationale for removing the tree, he said, for example, if it's a lone pine more susceptible to wind damage or a species of tree that doesn't live long or is known to be damaged or diseased.

"What this agreement does is it sort of formalizes that if we do not have those rights already written into our agreement with a landowner, then we will then approach the landowner for rights to cut that down," Carroll said.

He said many landowner agreements contain provisions that allow CMP to remove hazard and danger trees on land adjacent to the transmission corridors. Sometimes, those provisions are written into deeds and come with a property, and new landowners are not always aware of them, which can be another point of friction.

According to a Nov. 19 letter to the PUC from CMP's attorneys, going forward the company "will not remove any danger trees that appear healthy and are located on the edge or outside of its right-of-way and do not pose an obvious or immediate threat to CMP’s facilities under normal weather conditions, unless the landowner consents to the removal of such trees."

That letter, by Portland-based lawyer Jared des Rosiers notes that CMP is already party to some existing easement agreements that grant the company the right to remove danger trees on property outside the identified right-of-way, but even those trees will not be cut without specific landowner permission.

"Instead, CMP will seek the landowner’s written consent to remove such trees in accordance with the process outlined in its September 24, 2012, compliance filing," des Rosiers wrote. "Going forward, CMP where possible will seek new easement rights that give the utility the right to remove danger trees outside of the right-of-way . . . CMP intends to rely on those rights in the future to establish the landowner’s consent to the removal of danger trees on the edge or outside of the right-of-way."

sthistle@sunjournal.com

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Comments

FRANK EARLEY's picture

Why does this need to be so complicated??????

This seems to be just another example of the Federal Government telling the power companies one thing(The US Energy Policy Act of 2005), The Maine PUC comes up with their own plan, obviously not considering the Federal Mandate, and there you have it. Damned if you do and Damned if you don't.
Lets just save time and have the PUC, and the Federal Government get together and decide between them, who's going to Fine, CMP. Someone's going to get fined sooner or later. CMP, can't properly do their job to prevent power outages, and therefore, they will be in violation if the power goes out. Don't you just love it when they make a decision that makes everyone happy? Except of course, CMP, and anyone who uses electricity in Maine this winter.........

DANNY FITZSIMMONS's picture

remove trees = $$$

they like to remove trees it is worth a chunk of change. First they get so much for cutting the trees ON YOUR PROPERTY tfrom PUC in the form of rate hikes we will all see from this self serving line upgrade, then they sell the trees and I am sure there is no balance sheet showing where the money goes from the removal of these trees. First I think any trees fallen should be offered to the land owner an opttion to either keep the wood cut or recieve the money minus 10% for excess labor. Is it possible that these tress are harvested by a wood company and certain people are getting kick backs.. it would not be the first time this has gone on now has it? this I think just needs to be taken a look at.

Steve Bell's picture

$$$ for who?

I have personally spent more than three years working alongside multiple crews of one of CMP's trimming contractors, and can attest to the fact that the crews are very aware of who the trees they've felled belong to. The wood belongs to the landowner where the trees grew. I've never seen a crew remove any wood other than the chips that have to be hauled away for environmental reasons. People often stop and ask the crews for permission to take wood, and I've never seen that permission given. They always refer people to the landowner. No harvesting by other wood companies. No kickbacks. No theft.

In my opinion, the value of this program is clearly seen in the result. Several major storms occurred during the time I was doing this work. In each event, the damage that occurred in Maine was minimal, and quickly put right, compared to nearby states. Also in each event crews from Maine were sent to nearby states to help with their cleanup because they weren't running maintenance programs similar to Maine's. Obviously, this line maintenance is done mostly during daylight hours, in reasonably good weather, during normal working hours, which means greater safety and minimal overtime.

All I see in this letter are unsubstantiated suspicions and innuendo that smacks of conspiracy theory. If Mr. Fitzsimmons wishes the situation to be looked at, I suggest he get out of his armchair and onto a few job sites to see for himself what actually goes on. I hope when he does he has the good sense and courtesy not to hinder the men working, nor to endanger himself or others.

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