Nature Notes: A Salient Slap

Damn the public
A male eastern box turtle turned a wary eye on the camera. The mating season for box turtles is from late spring through as late as October. Females have yellow eyes. Dell Cullum

It seems like we are halfway through summer, but in reality we’re less than a third through. The roads are already super-clogged with vehicles, many of which are spiffy and go from 0 to 60 in less than 10 seconds, which is all well and good if you are on the Autobahn, but on Old Northwest Road or Accabonac Highway it’s a bit much.

Perhaps it is fitting that as all of these new cars stream by approaching the speed of light, they think they are outdistancing the poisonous odors emanating from the new, horribly brown utility poles that run from Toilsome Lane and Route 114 in East Hampton Village all the way to the middle of Amagansett.

But no matter how fast you move along, you will be breathing in the trenchant aroma of penta, the nickname for the very noxious and persistent chemical pentachlorophenol that is steadily emanating from these towering poles and the ground they sit in, and is so poisonous that it has been banned in 26 countries, but not in the United States of America.

It is a salient slap in the face to East Hampton, which has been a leader in outlawing the use of toxic chemicals townwide and banned the use of C.C.A. — chromated copper arsenate — pressure-treated wood in its waters and on its shorelands nearly 20 years ago, long before it was banned for the same uses and in construction nationwide. The Long Island Rail Road and New York State Department of Transportation used to routinely spray weed killers like Agent Orange on their rights-of-way to kill this and that weedy growth. Ever since they stopped at the request of East Hampton and other Long Island municipalities, what do you think happened? Yes, native wildflowers and native grasses such as milkweeds, goldenrods, asters, purple lovegrass, tall bluestem grass, and broom sedge sprouted up in the weeds’ stead.

So after Sandy, a deal is brokered by Governor Cuomo (and Chris Christie, no doubt): Reduce the Long Island Power Authority to a shell corporation, bring in the Public Service Enterprise Group, PSEG, based in Newark and give it carte blanche to do what they do in New Jersey, install mammoth utility poles treated with one of the world’s most horrific toxins, and prune the devil out of the street trees to accommodate them. Thus, like an army bent on conquering what LIPA was reluctant to, PSEG marched into East Hampton in Suffolk County and Port Washington in Nassau County like the Hessians marched in the Revolutionary War. Thank God, the Hessians were on our side.

LIPA, and LILCO before it, had already buried more than 25 miles of igh voltage power lines on the South Fork prior to Sandy. No threat of lines blowing down if they’re three feet underground. And the trees above them can remain untouched, so we can enjoy their untarnished grandeur as we walk, bicycle, or drive by them. Yes, 100 percent toxic-free and out of view.

It’s a simple matter of going to Google Maps on your smartphone or home computer to see the course of the remaining above-ground high-voltage power lines running from Shinnecock Canal to Montauk. The steel poles and rights-of-way that carry them are as easy to make out as the streets and railroad line that run from west to east. These pole lines cross major north-south roads along the way such as the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, Sagg Road, and Town Line Road. Otherwise, they are mostly out in the woods. Galvanized steel poles are sturdy, insect and fungal proof, and they keep the electric flux fields high up in the air.

If you follow the route from west to east on Google, you will notice something that is very obvious. The power lines are mostly out of harm’s way. They don’t pass directly through populous areas. PSEG comes along and breaks a long-standing rule. It runs the high voltage lines through a densely-populated area, mainly through northern East Hampton Village, but also along the built-up part of Town Lane. It could have run them along the L.I.R.R. line directly to the architectural eyesore it calls a substation at the corner of Montauk Highway and Old Stone Highway in Amagansett. But, noooooooo, it had an alternative method in mind.

Here’s how I think it went: The utility figured it could kill two birds with one stone and get rid of those noisy supplemental generating stations at the same time. The poles through the northern part of East Hampton Village and along Town Lane beyond will have to be replaced one day; why not do the whole thing in one foray? Replace the poles, transfer the existing domestic and commercial usage power to the new poles, run the high voltage lines on the same poles but higher up. Either way, the trees along the route — many so nicely maintained by the village under the omnipresent eye of the Ladies Village Improvement Society — will have to be pruned anyway. “Beats double handling, don’t you think?”

Damn the public, damn the scenic views, damn the school kids who pass by them on their way to school, damn the dogs who urinate on them! Damn the exposure to one of the world’s most toxic chemicals. Damn the exposure to the harmful electromotive fluxes raining down from the high voltage wires as the current zips along from west to east. “They’ll get over it,” I imagine an engineer saying 150 miles away in PSEG’s Newark office.

Larry Penny, a columnist for The Star, is a former East Hampton Town natural resources director who lobbied to get the power lines buried from Amagansett to Montauk following Hurricane Bob and also for burying lines on Northwest Road in East Hampton. He is a plaintiff in a current lawsuit brought by Long Island Businesses for Responsible Energy’s lawsuit against PSEG. The suit seeks removal of the new, taller electric poles and burial of the transmission line from East Hampton to Amagansett. 

Larry Penny can be reached via email at