Bamboozled: Little action on leaning trees

BB brandingAfter Superstorm Sandy ravaged New Jersey, the state’s utility companies scrambled to restore service.

At the time, JCP&L said it spent $603 million to pay 13,000 repair workers, clear 65,000 fallen trees, and replace 6,700 utility poles, 3,600 transformers and 400 miles of wire.

Paul and Diane Zdrodowski say they didn’t see that kind of action at their home, a Blairstown ranch in which they’ve lived for 14 years.

Their troubles started earlier, they said, with Tropical Storm Irene in late August 2011, when they were without power for seven days.

“We did not have any trees down on our power line, but I noticed this large tree leaning against another tree directly over the power line,” Paul Zdrodowski said.

He worried that the dead one, a white oak, would take down both trees in the right conditions.

A couple of days later, he said, he saw JCP&L truck repairing downed wires in his neighborhood, so he asked the driver to check his tree situation.

The driver said he only worked on lines, but he’d notify the company’s tree service.

Zdrodowski said nothing happened.

5613Until Superstorm Sandy happened.

“We had a different tree fall across my driveway and lean on to my power line,” he said of Sandy’s wrath, which left him without power for nine days. “I reported that to JCP&L on the phone immediately.”

This tree was about 20 feet away from the original problem tree, he said.

A few days after the storm, he found a tree service working for JCP&L down the block, and the driver took a look at the tree. The driver said the tree wasn’t on his list either, but Zdrodowski said the driver called his supervisor and got permission to cut down the tree.

Zdrodowski asked the driver if he could also take down the other leaning dead tree — the one from Irene — but he said he couldn’t.

A few days after that, the homeowner said he saw a JCP&L wire repair truck on his street, and he asked about the dead tree that was still standing over the power lines. The driver called it in, and Zdrodowski said he was told it was on the list to be taken care of during the next routine tree maintenance, probably in 2013.

“Much to my delight, I received a notice in the mail in early March from the [tree service] that they would be doing tree work on our private lane starting on March 23,” he said. “They showed up and did some minor branch removal.”

But the dangerous tree still stood, he said.

On April 10, Zdrodowski said, he showed one of the tree service guys the dead tree that was leaning over the power lines.

“He told me that if it was not on their list they would not clear it as they would not be paid by JCP&L,” he said. “He said he would check with his supervisor.”

Zdrodowski said he called JCP&L customer service to see if his tree could be put on “the list” while the trucks were in the neighborhood.

“[A rep] said they could not help me since JCP&L does not do preventive tree work,” he said. “Incredulous, I then asked her what the [tree service] people were doing on our lane. She said they were apparently doing routine maintenance.”

He said he explained it was only a matter of time before the tree fell on the power lines.

The rep said there was nothing she could do, Zdrodowski said.

“Apparently JCP&L would rather pay their linemen double or triple time repairing a downed power line than have a tree service spend five minutes to avoid the problem in the first place,” he said. “Perhaps the people now reviewing JCP&L’s rate increase request would be interested in reviewing this strategy.”

And he called Bamboozled.


We asked JCP&L to take a look at this homeowner’s plight. It said it would.

In the meantime, we reached out to the Bureau of Public Utilities for an update on tree removal requirements post-Sandy and Irene. It said the regulations are set forth in NJAC 14:5-9.

“The regulations, however will not answer the responsibility question other than to say that the EDCs [electric public utilities] must inspect and trim within their corridors or public ROWs (right-of-ways),” a spokesman said. “Trimming on trees outside of the ROW or easements require the EDCs to get the property owner’s approval.”

If approval is declined by the homeowner but the tree is a hazard tree, then it usually is decided in court on a case-by-case basis, he said.

Okay, but what about the opposite: when a homeowner says a tree is a hazard?

“The utility should investigate any reported hazard,” the spokesman said. “If they investigate a vegetation issue and determine it is a threat, then they can mitigate (with the owner’s permission) if it is an off ROW tree.”

We also contacted Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer/Middlesex), who co-sponsored a bill to create a commission meant to protect the energy infrastructure from tree damage. It was supposed to be up for a vote last week, but it was delayed for some tweaking.

He said the bill was derived from concerns raised during and after Superstorm Sandy when an estimated 2.6 million consumers lost power because of downed power lines.

“When you drive around many neighborhoods even today, six months after Superstorm Sandy hit, there are trees and branches precariously resting on wires that will likely come down in an average summer thunderstorm” he said in an email. “While there has been some vegetation management efforts made to remove trees that may damage lines, there clearly needs to be a long-term plan to address this problem and others that could jeopardize reliable delivery of energy to consumers.”

The bill would establish a commission to look at, among other items, best practices for vegetation management. The bill was amended last week, and DeAngelo said he hopes it will be voted on by the full Assembly in May or June.

“There also needs to a mechanism by which consumers can report trees or branches that are interfering with energy lines and know for sure that the problem will be rectified,” he said. “It should not be the job of consumers to hound the service provider to do their job and keep the lines clear.”

Two days after Bamboozled contacted JCP&L abouty Zdrodowski’s problem, a JCP&L rep was on his doorstep.

“He looked at the dead tree and said it clearly should be removed,” Zdrodowski said, adding that he said the tree the dead one was leaning on should come down, too.

The rep told the homeowner he would call the tree service that day to take the trees down.

“I asked him why this couldn’t have been handled earlier,” he said. “He said there was a breakdown in communications and that he should have been notified. That, of course, is contrary to what [the customer service rep] told me.”

Shortly thereafter, JCP&L called to report the job was done.

“This tree is 20 feet off of our right-of-way on a wooded area on his property,” said spokesman Ron Morano. “They missed it because it’s not on the right-of-way.”

He said the company has a four-year rotation in which it does “vegetation management.”

“Where we have poles and wires, we trim 15 feet around the wires or conductors, and that’s in accordance with New Jersey vegetation management standards,” he said. “If we believe a tree is a danger tree, we trim it away from our conductors.”

He said JCP&L also does emergency spot trimming when it’s warranted.

We asked what happened with this customer, who had several times reported a danger.

“He called into the call center and because of the damage that’s been caused by those storms, we were getting a tremendous number of calls,” he said. “Yes, it was missed.”

Morano said trees have always been a delicate issue for electric utilities, and they’ve drawn a great deal more attention since the storms of recent years.

Still, he said, customers should call if they see a problem.

“We come out and examine if a tree presents a danger based upon its proximity to our wires,” he said.

So if you have a potential problem, report it to your utility.

If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, file a complaint with BPU or contact Bamboozled.