By Amy Murre
Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) is planning to clear cut wide swaths of trees surrounding power lines in an aggressive program that claims to address wildfire hazards as a part of their Fire Safety Zone work.
Though some vegetation trimming and line clearances are required by law, these new cutting plans far exceed those requirements. As PG&E itself states, “The California Public Utilities Commission requires PG&E maintain at least a 4-foot clearance between vegetation and power lines in high fire-threat areas year-round to help ensure electric reliability and public safety.” Under their new program, PG&E wants to enlist property owner consent to voluntarily remove all vegetation to a distance of 15 feet from each side of the power lines in the affected zones, and extend the clearing down to one foot above the ground.
PG&E owns more than 100,000 miles of transmission lines, which it regularly inspects and maintains by cutting and trimming trees. With the planned clear cut width of 30 feet, the path of destruction could be considerable.
Such a dramatically new approach should have a comparably high profile, with extensive advance publicity and full, clear explanations, including what property owners’ rights and choices are. Unfortunately, the company seems to be introducing its plan homeowner by homeowner. How fully informed will property owners be, and how free will they feel to decline the extra removal, if representatives simply show up at their doors and say this is necessary for fire safety?
The company has provided no public estimates for just how great the environmental impact will be. Because this is a voluntary program, no environmental impact report (EIR) has been undertaken. Although PG&E has conducted internal environmental reviews, as of May 2018 the company will not release those reviews to the public. This allows PG&E to go ahead without demonstrating that it has considered, planned for, or designed offsets to the impacts of the project. For example, although the program will both produce CO2 and reduce CO2 sequestration by the removal of all vegetation, there are no known mitigation plans. Biological assessments are also lacking, meaning there may be no consideration of what habitats, species, nests, etc., may be in danger in these zones.
The impact on property owner’s rights also is an unknown. PG&E has not clarified the condition in which the cut area will be left or how the vegetation will be controlled in the future. Will communities and individuals be left with unpleasant messes to clean up? Will herbicides be applied across these areas? Will appropriate replacement vegetation be planted, and if so, by the company, or the property owners? Replanting is a crucial issue; after all, if good plants (low-growing and less volatile in terms of fire risk) are not planted immediately after the cutting, the same problematic species will soon return. It remains unclear what PG&E will replant, if anything, and also what the property owners will be allowed to replant in these areas.
Further, while large property owners may not be concerned with aesthetics, this will be a concern in subdivisions and other more densely populated areas, where landmark trees and valuable landscaping will be denuded—including trees that were planted specifically because they were on PG&E’s list of acceptable trees for under power lines. There is reason for alarm about these threats to property values and the natural beauty of neighborhoods. Of course, PG&E’s plan affects not only the private property owners themselves, but also the general public. Tree loss, environmental threats, and negative aesthetic changes impact entire communities.
It seems there is a need for much more clarification by PGE before it fully launches this program. There may still be time to say, “Whoa!” The company’s stated priorities include public safety as well as its own reduced maintenance costs and liability in the extreme fire risk areas. Though fire safety is critical, a program full of so many unknowns and a lack of clear, written information is not the way to go. And fear of fire, absent other information, should not be used to sway property owners to go along with the program. Given PG&E’s past behavior, including failure to properly handle other maintenance programs, there is reason for caution.
Amy Murre is a volunteer for the Stop Clearcutting CA Campaign.