Bill aims to keep power lines clear

By Neal J. Riley, The Lowell Sun

BOSTON — Public outcry over lengthy power outages after last October’s snowstorm and Tropical Storm Irene last August has prompted a state lawmaker to encourage cities and towns to fine utility companies that do not keep wires along public streets and highways free of overgrown tree limbs.

“If you want to use our land to run your wires, you’ve got to keep them free of tree branches,” Rep. Dan Winslow, R-Norfolk, said in an interview.

Winslow has sent model bylaws to cities and towns that, if adopted, would require utilities to keep wires over public land clear of branches and brush. Once notified by a municipality that a utility is violating the law, the utility would have 60 days to trim the tree or face a $100 fine per day for each tree.

Lowell Public Works Director Ralph Snow called Winslow’s proposal a great idea.

“I would think if there was some kind of repercussions if trees fell on wires and they knew that they were going to be held responsible, they would put more effort into it upfront,” he said.

Snow said trees falling on wires were a major problem for the city during the October storm, and it didn’t help that many trees were made heavier by remaining leaves.

“If that storm had come in January or December or some other time, it probably wouldn’t have been nearly the issue that it was,” he said.

Although Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, said she would love to hold utility companies accountable, she worries about the process of determining tree ownership.

“There’s going to be a very big gray area as far as how to implement something like that,” said Flanagan, a member of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. “I would want to see how they are going to determine who owns every tree.”

Flanagan was a lead backer of a 2009 law that established fines and penalties for utility companies that failed to file emergency-response plans with the state. She is also sponsoring legislation that would establish minimum emergency-staffing requirements for utility companies that said haven’t had enough workers on the ground to respond when storms hit.

“The utility companies have failed miserably over the last couple of storms,” said Flanagan, whose district is served by National Grid and Unitil. “I really think that consumers have been driven to the point that legislators are getting involved.”

Unitil spokesman Alec O’Meara said the company has budgeted $1.2 million on tree trimming for this year, up from about $500,000 in 2011. He said Unitil is reviewing the legislative proposals.

“We want to make sure that those bills are not going to be ultimately disruptive regarding emergency response for our customers,” he said.

National Grid did not respond to a request for comment.

Some town officials said they didn’t see a need for the crackdown on utilities.

“I don’t think that’s been a problem here,” said Dracut Public Works Director Michael Buxton, who also serves as the town tree warden. “They come in a couple of times a year and give us a list of the areas they are going to trim back.”

Chelmsford Town Manager Paul Cohen said the Board of Selectmen has told National Grid that trees around wires were not properly trimmed.

But Cohen said he isn’t sure the attorney general’s office would allow towns to fine utility companies without state regulation.

“I think it would help all parties if there was an objective standard that towns or National Grid could point to and say, ‘This is how we’re going to do that,’ ” he said.

Cohen also noted that more trimming may prevent long-duration power outages, but said the public may have a different reason to be upset.

“As much as we get a pushback when the power goes out, we get a lot of complaints when the trimming is excessive,” he said.

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