I recently read an article regarding vegetation control that really irked me. Everybody’s favorite regulatory body, the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC), decided it would be a good idea to prevent one of the electric utilities under its jurisdiction (West Penn Power) from using herbicides to clear trees from under a power line. The reason? The homeowner complained about drinking water contamination. Ugh.
The Vegetation Control Blues
What makes this so irritating is that Pennsylvania electric utilities have essentially been pre-authorized by the PUC for decades to use herbicides for vegetation control purposes. Without it, tree stumps would continue to sprout over and over again. West Penn Power already spends $40 million a year for vegetation control, and having to continuously retreat re-sprouting stumps would surely increase this expense.
As best I can tell, this ruling was a proverbial olive branch extended to the local community, probably because utility vegetation control practices are always scrutinized by homeowners. I say that because there is no way this decision should have gone down this way.
The PUC acknowledged that PA’s residents have not been harmed by the use of herbicides by utilities, so why would this case be any different – especially since this homeowner’s well was located 70 feet from the right-of-way in question? Additionally, West Penn Power appropriately tried to alleviate the homeowner’s concerns by offering to send both a forestry expert and a representative from Dow, the chemical manufacturer, to the home to assess the situation. West Penn also offered to test the water before and after the treatment. But alas, there was no compromise forthcoming from the homeowner.
In the final analysis, vegetation control is essential for electric reliability. Without it, branches would fall on wires left and right and we’d experience a much higher frequency of outages. But hey, I guess one man’s opinion is more important than that, right? Oy Vey!