Nature Notes: Bury the Power Lines

PSEG thought it had carte blanche and immediately went to work

    Turkey vultures were back in town as of the Monday before last. Even more surprising was the sighting of individual ospreys over Sag Harbor by Ted Schiavoni and Jean Held three and two weeks ago, respectively. Ospreys used to nest in trees. Now almost all of Long Island’s ospreys nest on platforms situated on tall poles. Interestingly, the much maligned privately owned Long Island Lighting Company was instrumental in bringing the ospreys back to the area after their numbers were decimated by DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides applied over wetlands to kill mosquitoes from the 1950s into the 1960s. LILCO installed the first osprey nesting platforms on surplus utility poles, and ospreys took to them right away.

    LILCO’s efforts weren’t completely altruistic. Osprey in East Marion and Orient had been nesting on the tops of utility poles during their heyday in the 1940s and 1950s prior to the population collapse. Getting them to nest on platforms well away from electrical lines during the recovery would keep them from befouling the lines and save the utility time and money. The ill-fated Shoreham nuclear plant was the major nail in LILCO’s coffin. In the early 1990s after George Pataki became New York’s governor, LILCO was replaced with the Long Island Power Authority, a quasi-public utility that abandoned all plans to build nuclear plants and took over all of LILCO’s existing utility lines and stations.

    LIPA’s day-to-day operations were recently taken over by PSEG Long Island, a division of PSEG of New Jersey, and here is where my story begins.

    As soon as it took control, PSEG began “improving” existing utility lines to make them more hurricane-resistant. LIPA’s strategy — developed in the wake of Hurricane Bob, the Halloween storm of 1991, and subsequent 100-year storms of December 1992 and March 1993 — was to hire tree pruning companies and methodically trim branches along Long Island roads and rights-of-way so that they wouldn’t become a chronic menace to power lines during major storms with gale force winds. Untold millions were spent with private companies for their tree-pruning services.

    The remaining years of the last decade of the 20th century were meteorologically benign and the tree trimming strategy was hailed a success. But, halfway into the first decade of the new millennium, things changed. Storm after storm hit Long Island and outage after outage occurred, topped by Hurricane Sandy, the icing on the inedible cake. Enter PSEG.

    PSEG thought it had carte blanche and immediately went to work. Its storm-abatement strategy was based less on tree trimming, more on installing utility poles to position the electrical wire above the majority of the street trees. A key presumption on which such strategy was based was that the majority of trees along the rights-of-way were less than 50 feet tall and if the utility went to even taller poles, there would be a hue and cry. PSEG presumed wrong. Fifty-foot trees will continue to grow and the taller they become, the more prone they are to blow over and for their branches to blow down.

    There was little input from local authorities, a major break from the past when LILCO and then LIPA consulted with local municipalities on several occasions and modified their plans thusly in the interest of the taxpayers and the environment. Starting in the late 1980s, LILCO came before the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals several times having to do with a substation on Cove Hollow Road in East Hampton, a Montauk substation on Industrial Road, and for plans to fix pole and wire damage on Napeague on the high-voltage transmission system that serves Montauk.

    Finally, after suffering considerable chronic storm damage along its Napeague lines, LIPA came to the town for a natural resources permit to bury the high-voltage lines to Montauk, after which most of the tall poles that formerly served the system were removed by helicopter. That underground system has served Montauk well for 20 years without a single failure and saved LILCO, then LIPA, a considerable amount of money.

    After being informed that Northwest Road in East Hampton was a state-designated scenic highway, LIPA revised its plan to extend electrical lines from the northernmost house on Northwest Road to Alewife Brook Road, consulted with the town, and buried about two miles of electrical lines to satisfy the connection.

    Bowing to pressure in Southampton Town, LIPA buried miles of high-tension electrical lines from Southampton Village to the hamlet of Bridgehampton in the rights-of-way of several roads between the two points.

    It should be pointed out that the cooperative two-way relationships that existed between local governments and LIPA came to fruition during Kevin Law’s tenure as chief. Kevin, who is now the CEO of the Long Island Association, is a Long Islander who understands Long Island ways and bent over backwards to accommodate local ways.

    The Suffolk County Water Authority buries all of its water lines. All natural gas conduits and many Verizon telephone lines are buried, as well. No, PSEG does not have a carte blanche here, far from it. What is good for New Jersey is not necessarily good for Long Island. PSEG should get in step and build meaningful two-way relationships with Long Island towns and villages before undertaking major works. In East Hampton Village and East Hampton Town, it should take a tip from its predecessors, retrace its steps, and begin anew. Ospreys never nest underground.

    Larry Penny can be reached at