Can Fed Funds Fell Poles?

       State and local officials expressed cautious optimism this week about the chances of PSEG Long Island’s changing its mind about its installation of super-size utility poles and high-tension wires in East Hampton Village and Town. Homeowners have objected strongly to the tall poles and wires being put in aboveground, close to their houses.

       To accommodate new, higher-voltage transmission lines designed to guard against widespread outages and impacts from severe storms, PSEG has been installing the poles and wires, at a breakneck pace in the face of controversy, along a six-mile route from a substation at Cove Hollow Road in East Hampton, along narrow village streets, up Accabonac Road to Town Lane, and down Old Stone Highway in Amagansett to another substation.

       At the behest of members of a hastily formed group, Save East Hampton: Safe Responsible Energy, both Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell and Village Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. have written to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, asking him to get involved. Besides aesthetic concerns, residents have raised fears of poles falling in a storm, and about the health effects of both the high-voltage wires and the chemicals used to treat the utility poles.

       State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who, with State Senator Kenneth J. LaValle, was to discuss the issue yesterday morning with the head of the state Public Service Commission, said Tuesday that the governor’s announcement last week that $730 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds that has been earmarked for improvements to Long Island’s power grid as a hedge against damage from storms, could be a “key part” of a satisfactory solution.

       Homeowners have demanded that the power lines be buried, along an alternate route such as along the railroad line. Mr. Cantwell and Mr. Rickenbach, with a group of concerned residents, are to discuss such options at a meeting in East Hampton next week with PSEG officials.

       Burying the power lines “clearly qualifies,” Mr. Thiele said, as a project eligible for funding with the federal money for energy-grid upgrades. But, he warned, “the fact that construction has started limits options to some degree.”

       In addition to $705 million already promised for post-Sandy utility repairs, the new money brings to $1.4 billion the recovery funding for work designed to prevent future widespread electrical outages. FEMA will provide 90 percent of the money; the remainder will come from federal Department of Housing and Urban Development community development block grants.

       “I think we have the attention of the P.S.C. and of the governor,” said Mr. Thiele.

       The governor’s office, Mr. Cantwell said, has acknowledged receipt of his letter. “To a large extent, the decision is going to be made by the governor’s office,” said the supervisor.

        Based on his discussions with PSEG representatives, Mr. Thiele said that “it comes down to money.” The utility, he said, “wouldn’t mind” burying the lines, but does not believe its entire customer base — all or most of Long Island — should foot the bill.

       The cost of the new lines, as presently being installed above-ground, is $7 million, Mr. Thiele said, while the estimated cost of burying the lines is between $20 million and $24 million.

       The assemblyman pointed out that when the Long Island Power Authority, which handed over control of the electric grid to PSEG on Jan. 1, proposed a similar project some years ago in Southampton, it offered to bear the cost of burying at least some of the lines. Residents took on some of the cost. This time around, he said, neither the town nor the village was presented with that option. 

       One solution, Mr. Thiele suggested, could be to pay for a third of the underground wire costs from the federal storm-mitigation funds, to charge all PSEG Long Island ratepayers for another third, and to raise the rest of the cost through a surcharge on ratepayers in the affected areas.

       Concerned residents spoke at both a meeting of the town board last Thursday night and a village board meeting the next morning, sometimes emotionally. “It’s a travesty,“ Wendy Gehring of McGuirk Street said last Thursday. “We have not slept in three weeks,” said Lynne Brown, also a McGuirk Street resident. McGuirk Street homeowners have spearheaded the bury-the-poles effort.

       Even residents of areas away from the transmission line route should concern themselves with the project, David Buda of Springs said at last week’s town board meeting. “Everyone, even if these poles aren’t on your street, should speak up,” he said. “It’s going to radically change the look and feel of our community.”

       Debra Foster, a former town board and planning board member, said that “this project is the ugliest, most intrusive, stupid project that has ever marked this town — since 1648.” It goes “through the heart of the village,” she said, cutting through a “premier resort community” and past land that “the townspeople taxed themselves to preserve,” as well as “a recreational facility and a house that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.”

       “What the hell happened?” she asked. “I haven’t spent 40 years to see this sliced through the heart of this community. This is an abomination.” She branded the stop-PSEG drive “a David-and-Goliath undertaking.”

       “I can’t believe whoever the gatekeepers are in our government let this happen,” Ms. Brown said. Her husband, Michael Brown, said his involvement has only led him to “more questions” and “more frustration . . . that it slipped by two municipalities.”

       Ms. Foster gave an account of a meeting that took place last fall at Town Hall with then-Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, Highway Superintendent Steve Lynch, and Len Bernard, the town budget officer, in attendance. It ended with Mr. Lynch issuing PSEG the road-opening permit it needed to begin the transmission line work.

       The project was reportedly presented by LIPA representatives as largely an “in-place, in-kind” replacement. However, an environmental assessment provided to both the town and the village provided more details.

       Mayor Rickenbach said yesterday that when LIPA originally got in touch about the project, “I felt there should be a total degree of transparency.” He asked the utility to present the details at an ad hoc public meeting, to be attended by the village board, which was held in early September.

       The plan was presented in detail at that time, he said, and “no major concerns” were raised by those in attendance. Mr. Rickenbach said he did ask LIPA about placing the lines underground, but was told it would be more disruptive than installing the new, taller poles, as well as cost-prohibitive.

       Environmental assessment documents prepared by LIPA, as required under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, were available at that point, the mayor said, “but nobody really questioned . . . wanted to see them at that point.” And, he said, “I did not see any communique from LIPA that said the clock was ticking,” as far as a period in which the town or village could raise questions. That period has now passed.

       Assemblyman Thiele has been collecting all the legal and procedural documentation on the project and the process the utility followed.        

       “It certainly would be inaccurate to say that the village and the town didn’t have some information on this,” he said.  But, he added, “I have serious questions” about whether the municipalities were given the full picture.

       “We’re just kind of growing impatient because of the feverish pace” at which the PSEG poles and lines are being erected, Mr. Brown said Monday. Trucks from the utility were working their way up Accabonac Road