Tuesday, August 26, 2014

PSEG | East Hampton Atrocity, Then Outrage


Bottom line.
PSEG Long Island called a public hearing yesterday evening on the Utility 2.0 Long Range Plan. It was an opportunity lost.

Local residents such as eco-warrior Debra Foster organized Save East Hampton around the “Bury the Lines” issue, and used the hearing as their platform, complete with a couple of dozen supporters wearing orange tee shirts emblazoned with their slogan.

Respect Not Returned

Even though the "Bury the Lines" group hijacked the hearing, they were not disruptive. They were quiet and respectful for an hour, giving the representatives of the PSEG and the Governor and NYS Public Service Commission (which has only advisory powers over Long Island) a chance to repair relations with the East Hampton community.

No such luck. The respect was not returned. The PSEG spokesman left, although reportedly there were two other PSEG employees hiding in the back. It was an opportunity lost, except for the possibility of a published record with excellent speakers on the Utility 2.0 Plan, such as East Hampton Supervisor Larry Cantwell, Assemblyman Fred Thiele, Frank Dalene of the Energy Sustainability Committee (ESC), and Gordian Raacke of Renewable Energy Long Island.

The meeting was structured in an unforgivably cynical way, taking up the whole first hour with a slide show. The big issues were buried with minutiae in which no one had any interest. (The best place to hide a book is in a library.) The slide show could have been announced as available on-line, and the PSEG spokesman given the same four-minute limit that community representatives  were required to keep to. Sure enough, the hall was emptied out by 8 pm, leaving no audience for many of the 50 people who signed up to speak; some are planning and environmental experts with real contributions to make.

I know two well-informed people who were at the meeting before it opened at 5 pm, to sign up to speak, but couldn't. They had to leave for dinner by 8 pm, before they were called.

Why East Hampton Residents Are Furious

PSEG is the latest catastrophe in a string of disasters, beginning with the one that brought down the venerable Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO), founded in 1911 by Ellis Phillips, an engineer. LILCO built the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant. I was at Shoreham with my wife Alice in the 1970s, protesting the folly of nuclear power in an area where there was no escape in the event of an emergency.

Public pressure brought to an end to Shoreham in 1989, under Governor Mario Cuomo. The plant was dismantled and LILCO ended. So anyone who thinks that taking down some 70-foot poles is an impossible dream should remember Shoreham. A lot of people involved in the anti-Shoreham campaign are still around - Steve Latham, for example, of Twomey, Latham et al.

The assets of LILCO were purchased by the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA), a public authority, which issued debt to buy them. LIPA still owns the utility assets on Long Island along with the debt. But the pesky problem of actually providing electricity to Long Island residents has been contracted out, first to KeySpan, which became the National Grid, and now to PSEG, a Newark-based electric utility. If Long Island customers got an electric bill from Scam, Inc., they would probably pay it.

Standing room only. Big crowd of more than 200 people unhappy with PSEG and the Governor. Photo by JT Marlin.
The problem is that good-cop LIPA makes environmental commitments to customers that bad-cop PSEG then makes fun of. PSEG's customers in the Town of East Hampton finally got a hearing and were eager to express their distress at PSEG's trampling on their right to due process by installing high-voltage transmission lines on new 70-foot (says the NY Times - described in some places as 65-foot or even 60-foot) poles.

More than 200 people attended, says Newsday, a big crowd - elderly people had to stand for more than an hour until the crowd thinned out, even though Village officials brought out many more chairs.

I don't think anyone went out of that meeting with the feeling that Albany cared yet what they think and that the treatment of the community would immediately change. But those who might have wondered whether this might be a lot of fuss over nothing, like maybe me, could only have come out of the meeting with a sense of betrayal by PSEG and, yes, the officials who are supposed to be keeping PSEG in check. These are the times and places that create a local Henry ("Braveheart") Wallace or James ("Black") Douglas, leaders of Scotland's successful fight against a then-imperial London.

This despite East Hampton's being celebrated in the Governor's Comprehensive Energy Vision as a leader in Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency.

East Hamptonites have three major gripes with PSEG's handling of environmental issues:
  • PSEG introduced itself to East Hampton with what one organization's spokesman called "an atrocity", installing nearly 300 ugly and dangerous poles in defiance of local laws and traditions and feelings. 
  • Testifying before the Director, DPS-LI, Julia Bovey. The
    PSEG spokesman took to the end of the first hour, then left
    before the excellent string of four-minute public comments.
  • PSEG's "Utility 2.0" plan, which was the reason PSEG called the meeting, was  slammed by Gordian Raacke of Renewable Energy - Long Island (RELI) as "Not 2.0, more like 1.1". It lacks detail. The information that it does disclose, like building seven new fossil-fuel power plants on Eastern Long Island, defies decisions by local residents. East Hampton has pledged itself to be 100 percent independent of fossil fuel by 2020, and 100 percent dependent instead on renewable energy - solar, wind, geothermal, batteries.
  • The public hearing yesterday was an outrage. PSEG's representative took up an hour of time with a recitation of mostly irrelevant facts, then fled the scene instead of showing a scintilla of respect by listening to the well-prepared four-minutes-or-less statements of 40+ members of the public.  Next time, he or his successor should be given no more time to speak than members of the public.
The Atrocity

PSEG was atrocious in handling its first move, which was adding to transmission lines by putting up 267 toxic poles, 70 feet long, with (to come) extra-high-voltage lines that no existing first responders know how to deal with or are permitted to deal with. The negative impacts on the East Hampton community are multiple, as described by the numerous comments that started at 6 pm:
  • The poles are hideous. They are like black teeth in the Town Lane smile.
  • Due process was not followed. As Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said, LIPA administered it own 30-day review process without regard for any environmental regulations. There was no proper environmental impact study of the 6.5 mile transmission line. Quoth Mr. Cantwell, "Never again." He means it. 
  • Kathleen Cunningham of the usually staid East Hampton Village Preservation Society was up in arms over the bypassing of local planning procedures.
  • The transmission lines will carry higher voltage than anyone is used to.  
  • If (when) the trees fall and bring down the poles, the high voltage will bring traffic to a standstill. Will PSEG personnel be ready with trucks to remove the poles and high-voltage wires, since no one else can?
  • The new poles create huge emergency-service problems. The transmission lines go right past the East Hampton Village Emergency Services Building where the meeting was held. In another storm, the transmission lines could block vehicles from leaving the building. How is PSEG going to get to fix the lines? This is a crisis waiting to happen, with anyone in East Hampton being a possible victim of the lack of services.
  • Some of the 60-foot poles are 20 feet from homes. What will happen to the homes when the high-voltage wires fall on private homes?
  • Gordian Raacke, RELI.
  • The poles are treated with a toxic chemical, Penta, that is banned in the USA for any use but utility poles and railroad ties, and is about to be banned by treaty in 211 countries as a probable carcinogen.
  • The reason Penta is still accepted for utility poles, according to one comment at the meeting, is that regulators assumed that none of these poles would be installed close to residences with children.
The Problem with Penta-Treated Poles

The point about toxic poles was new to me. The PSEG poles have been treated with Pentachlorophenol - Penta or PCP, introduced in the 1930s. Use of Penta has declined because its advantages are also big negatives - it lasts for a long time in the environment and is effective because it poisons all kinds of creatures. Its only permitted U.S. use is to preserve utility poles and railroad ties. Utility poles last 35 years with Penta treatment, five times as long as when they are untreated. But in the meantime they release poison into the ground and the air.

PSEG workers who put in the poles are exposed to Penta through inhalation and skin contact. Residents are exposed through contact with ground around the treated wood, or drinking water contaminated by Penta through leakage into well-water. Short-term exposure to large amounts of Penta can cause harmful effects on the liver, kidneys, blood, lungs, nervous system, immune system, and gastrointestinal tract. Side effects include elevated temperature, profuse sweating, uncoordinated movement, muscle twitching, and coma. Contact with Penta in the form of vapor can irritate the skin, eyes, and mouth. Long-term exposure to Penta is associated with carcinogenic, renal, and neurological effects and the U.S. EPA classifies Penta as a probable human carcinogen. Penta has been detected in surface waters and sediments, rainwater, drinking water, aquatic organisms, soil, and food, as well as in human milk, adipose tissue, and urine.

Utility 2.0

Gordian Raacke of RELI said it all. Utility 2.0 is really Utility 1.1 because it doesn't take us very far. It's a PSEG construct - and PSEG's CEO has expressed his impatience with the vision of the future that East Hampton has adopted. East Hampton plans for a 2020 future of 100 percent renewable energy, including solar panels accompanied by a system of distributed energy generation. PSEG is focusing on taking control of more of the consumer's energy equipment.

Control over the system should really rest with the owner of the system, which is LIPA and ultimately the State of New York. The State's plan is the Comprehensive Energy Vision, in which East Hampton is a model for the rest of the state.

It is clear that changes in how utilities are organized are ahead. They have been in the making for decades. But neither PSEG nor New York State has articulated exactly what they have in mind.

The Outrage

Now, at the tail end of a series of hearings that Governor Cuomo might have thought would put public unhappiness to rest, the handling of the hearing angered people, like me, who thought of themselves as moderates before the show. 

The first hour was wasted on general information about PSEG that was mostly unrelated to the issue they were there to comment on - which was:
  • How to take all the poles down as quickly as possible and bury the wires.
  • How to make sure that no state agency ever, ever again rides rough-shod over the community the way that PSEG just did.
Election year.
Jeremy Samuelson, Executive Director of the 40-year-old Concerned Citizens of Montauk, who used the word "atrocity" to describe the PSEG move, said that the main message he brought from Montauk is that PSEG needs to come up with $20-$30 million to take down all the transmission-line poles and bury them. If PSEG doesn't put up the money it will have to come from somewhere else.

It reminds me of the NYS Urban Development Corporation's eminent domain authority. It was used for an economic-development objective, and stirred up cries of: "Never again."

Julia Bovey, Director of the Department of Public Service-Long Island in Albany, is charged with making recommendations to Governor Cuomo. Her first recommendation should be to take out all 267 of the 60-foot poles and bury the transmission wires. Until that happens, expect unhappiness and negative feedback from East Hampton.