Thursday, May 19, 2011

LORAX Comments on Today's PSC CASE 10-E-0155 Ruling

LORAX is supportive of the goals outlined in the new transmission vegetation management regulations. However, as a public interest environmental lobbying group, we have some specific concerns with the guidelines as announced in today's Press Release. (Note: as the actual text of the Order has not yet been released, we have not seen the commentary by DPS Staff nor the discussion by the Commission itself. This commentary may provide additional insight into the intentions and context of each guideline.)

In general, the guidelines enhance notification requirements, provide for a TVMP complaint escalation process, create a distinction between rural ROWs and urban/suburban ROWs, call for more limited vegetation removals (modifying the original Case 04-E-0822 orders requiring clear-cutting of the entire ROW "to the floor"), and require utilities to describe when and what sort of replant mitigation they will provide along impacted ROWs.

All of this is good news when seen from a high level perspective. However, in most instances, the rules do not provide specific criterial or detailed requirements and are thus open to a possibly wide-ranging interpretation by each utility. Yes, the DPS staff must review and approve these updated TVMP documents, but nowhere is there a requirement for any public review of proposed changes to said TVMPs. Given the public outcry and concern about the appearance of DPS staff / utility cronyism, why shouldn't a public review phase be mandated?

The first new regulation concerning notification, in particular, is more expansive that originally proposed:

Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc. and Orange and Rockland Utilities, Inc. shall provide individual written notification to all easement encumbered and abutting landowners, local municipal elected officials, and affected state agencies, of cyclic ROW vegetation management work, not more than 180 days nor less than 30 days prior to the commencement of such work.

This requires notification not only of properties with ROW easements within them, but of all properties adjacent to ROWs. Good news. There are two weaknesses, herein, however. First, the notification window can be as short as 30 days - ok for individual landowners, but tougher for municipalities to hold public meetings. Secondly, this notification requirement applies specifically only to Con Ed and O&R, rather than to all state transmission utilities.

In regulation #3, special TVMPs for highly population areas are required:

Con Edison and Orange and Rockland shall develop, for staff review and acceptance, a section in their Long Range Right of Way Management Plans (Plan) specifically addressing how they will conduct their ROW management work on high density ROW areas.

Again, the issue here is that no prescriptive detail is provided as to what sort of changes should be made in dealing with high density population areas. Nor is there a specific criteria defining "high density" - which has previously been an issue in O&R territory.

In terms of mitigation, the new rules call out for public documentation about replanting:

All companies shall develop sections in their Commission approved ROW Management Plans, for staff review and acceptance, to address the circumstances and criteria pursuant to which replanting is warranted.

Once again, however, there are no detailed "base" requirements about when and how mitigation is to be performed. Could a utility simply take Con Ed's position that "We don't replant, period." Would this not fulfill the letter of requirement #6 (quoted above)?

So, over all the ruling is a mix blessing. It offers a lot of possibility for relief, but just how much there will be is based upon an ongoing (an not public) process. LORAX believes that there should be more robust (detailed) requirements as well as public oversight based upon the last 7 years of utility rampage along the ROWs in conjunction with the DPS/PCS's avoidance & justification of said actions.

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