PSEG to Look Again

But who will pay to bury the lines?

A grassroots group of East Hampton residents, and the elected officials who took up their cause, have obtained a commitment from PSEG Long Island to re-examine its plans and map out a way to lay six miles of high-voltage electrical transmission line underground. The questions now are, who will pay for it and must the $7 million installation of overhead lines that sparked the community controversy continue?

In a March 14 letter following meetings with residents and officials, David Daly, the president and chief operating officer of PSEG Long Island, said the company would accede to the community’s wishes provided town and village ratepayers shoulder all the costs.

That includes, he said, not only the cost of burying the 23 and 33-kilovolt lines, but also the cost of finishing the installation of the lines above ground, which would be removed in two years once an underground installation is completed.

“No good,” was the response of elected officials from Representative Tim Bishop to Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell, and members of Save East Hampton: Safe Responsible Energy.

The citizen advocates, who have expressed concern from the beginning about the visual impact, safety considerations, and potential health effects of the utility poles — up to 65 feet high, with high-voltage wires — being installed along neighborhood streets between utility substations on Buell Lane in the village and Old Stone Highway in Amagansett, are continuing to press for an immediate halt to the overhead project.

In a letter sent Monday to Mr. Daly, officials asked that PSEG follow a cost-sharing model used in Southampton five years ago, when a nine-mile-long transmission line being installed by LIPA was buried at an approximate cost of $30 million. In that case, $20 million, above and beyond the $10 million cost of a traditional overhead installation, was split between the utility, which assessed the charge to all its ratepayers Islandwide, and the residents of Southampton in the affected area, who pay an additional assessment above and beyond their base utility bills.

The letter, on State Legislature letterhead, was signed by Mr. Bishop, State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle, Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., Supervisor Cantwell, and East Hampton Village Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. It outlines a payment scenario for East Hampton based on PSEG’s cost estimates and the availability of Federal Emergency Management Agency grants for the project.

The total cost, $28.6 million, includes $20 million to bury the transmission line, the $6.5 million already spent on the overhead lines, and $2.1 million to modify the overhead project. Minus an expected $8.5 million FEMA grant, the net cost of $20.1 million should be split evenly between PSEG and East Hamptoners, the letter states.

The PSEG share would be paid for by the utility’s entire rate base, while the other half would be raised by a special assessment on the utility bills of customers within the “benefited area” of East Hampton, as determined by local officials. The formula could include, the letter says, a higher rate for those who benefit the most from burial, because of their proximity to the overhead lines, and a lower rate for others deemed to derive some benefit, but to a lesser extent, based on geography.

The monthly financial impact on the East Hampton ratepayer, the letter said, would depend on the geographical extent of the “benefited area,” the term of repayment, and the interest.

Other details outlined by Mr. Daly in his letter are still “under review,” the officials wrote to the utility chief, and so were not addressed. “However,” they wrote, “we believe it is imperative that cost responsibility . . . be addressed immediately.”

Rebecca Singer, a spokeswoman for Save East Hampton, called the recent letter from PSEG to local officials “a major disappointment, to say the least.”

The letter fails to address the residents’ request that the utility stop the overhead work immediately and instead begin construction on the underground wiring and reinstall generators in Montauk that were recently taken offline to fulfill energy production needs.

The group has planned a rally at Hook Mill in East Hampton from 1 to 3 p.m. on March 29 to press home that message, as well as press for PSEG to follow the Southampton precedent in assessing the cost of burying the lines.

Ms. Singer said the East Hampton advocates were in touch with counterparts who are fighting a PSEG overhead transmission line project in Port Washington. “We need to question why, on the island, we are doing so much overhead, in light of Hurricane Sandy,” she said in an email. The new poles, she wrote, are designed to withstand winds of up to 130 miles per hour; however, winds exceeded that during the Hurricane of 1938.

 Her group, Ms. Singer said, has written to Audrey Zibelman, who heads the New York State Public Service Commission, inviting her to visit East Hampton to see what PSEG is doing here, and to suggest a moratorium on PSEG projects across Long Island until they can be reviewed and subjected to public hearings, “before millions of taxpayer dollars are thrown away needlessly,” she said.

The current situation regarding the East Hampton transmission lines, Assemblyman Thiele said in a release earlier this week, points to the need for the state to establish an office of utility consumer advocate, which would represent consumers’ interests during state and federal regulatory proceedings. Funding for the proposal, which Mr. Thiele co-sponsored, is in the State Assembly’s 2014-15 draft budget.

“PSEG-LI has outraged local residents by constructing a new transmission line through residential neighborhoods, a historic village, and scenic vistas. They have failed to provide the same option to East Hampton to underground the transmission line that was offered to Southampton just a few short years ago. Elected officials have taken up their cause, but there does not exist an office in state government to counter-balance the unfair one-sided monopolistic advantage that a utility has in these matters,” he wrote in the release.

Assemblyman Thiele opposed the state’s LIPA Reform Bill last year because, he said in his release, “it did nothing to reduce utility rates and lacked any meaningful oversight” over PSEG-LI.

“This New Jersey company was given ‘carte blanche’ over Long Island’s energy future,” he wrote, noting that the Public Service Commission has only an advisory role over the utility company. A utility consumer advocate, he said, “would be a check on the unbridled authority of the utility company.”

More than 40 states have such an independent agency, Mr. Thiele said, adding that residential customers in those states have seen “drastic savings” in utilities costs in comparison to the cost of funding the agency.

“Long Islanders suffer with some of the highest utility rates and lowest customer satisfaction in the nation,” he said.