Storm brewing over PPL plans to cut trees beneath power lines in Lower Macungie

Posted: 7:40 AM EST Feb 22, 2013
Lower Macungie Twp. commissioners

Lower Macungie officials already are bracing for angry residents expected at their March 7 meeting to complain about PPL’s plans to cut trees under some power lines in the township.

Ron Eichenberg, president of the township commissioners, called PPL’s plans “a scorched earth policy.” 

“We know how upset the residents are going to be,” he said.

Residents should not yell and scream at township commissioners about the work that will be done by PPL, because it is beyond the scope of their authority, explained Lower Macungie solicitor Richard Somach.

PPL is operating under “a federal mandate” to remove trees and other tall vegetation in power line rights-of-way to reduce wide-scale power outages, said township manager Bruce Fosselman, who plans to post information about the issue on the township’s website.

Somach explained only grasses and small shrubs are allowed to grow under PPL transmission lines, as well as within 10 feet on either side of those lines.

A few residents who live along Princeton Road already lodged complaints with the five commissioners at their Thursday night meeting.

Residents have received letters from Penn Line Service, Inc., of Montgomery, Lycoming County, which will do the work under contract with PPL Electric Utilities.

Penn Line will remove trees and clear brush on the full width of PPL’s power line right-of -way. Even trees beyond the right-of-way may be cut if the utility determines they present a hazard to power lines. PPL states its contractor will trim trees rather than removing them “where possible and practical.”

To keep the electricity flowing, PPL is removing and trimming more trees in power line rights-of-way than it did in the past. “We understand this approach is not always popular with property owners,” states PPL in a brochure. “But it is the right thing to do – to keep our system safe and reliable for everyone.”

PPL is required to meet strict federal reliability standards imposed on electric utilities after the 2003 Northeast blackout, when 55 million people in eight states and parts of Canada lost power after one tree touched a transmission line.

The federal government also recommended PPL do more to keep trees away from high voltage lines after the heavy snowstorm created widespread outages in late October 2011.

The company says it faces stiff federal fines if it fails to comply.

PPL was on the agenda to make a presentation on “transmission line vegetation management” at Thursday night’s meeting but a PPL forester could not attend, said Somach. He added the forester will be at the March 7 township meeting.

PPL was going to start cutting trees in Lower Macungie on March 4, but Somach said he’s been assured no work will be done until after it makes a presentation on March 7.

Resident Andrea McKiernan told commissioners: “I have lots of nice trees in my backyard that they want to cut down. An individual I spoke with said: ‘We’re not trimming, we’re removing’.”

“I can’t imagine all those residents are okay with their trees being removed,” said McKiernan.

“I’m sure they’re not,” responded more than one township official.

McKiernan said she wants to reach other township residents for solidarity, to protest the work.

Township officials told her they don’t have a list of who will be impacted. Commissioner James Lancsek estimated four or five subdivisions in the township will be affected.

Acting township engineer Alan Fornwalt said the work will be done beneath 69,000-volt lines that cross Hamilton Boulevard west of Krocks Road and go south, crossing Route 100 near the Mack Trucks plant. He said another branch of those lines splits off to the east behind Hillside School. “We have no idea if that’s included at this point.”

Fornwalt told McKiernan the township also has more questions than answers about the work that will be done. Later he said township-owned property also is beneath those power lines and will be “clear cut.”

Commissioner Ryan Conrad recommended doing what he did: going online to the satellite view on Google Maps, finding the power line and just following it.

Somach was told the work will be done beneath the lines that are “along Sauerkraut Lane, Willow to Mill Creek, and then onto Route 100.”

Somach suggested to residents that state legislators may carry more clout with PPL. He and other township officials recommended residents who are upset should contact State Sen. Pat Browne and State Rep. Ryan Mackenzie. The solicitor also suggested both Browne and Mackenzie be invited to the March 7 meeting. Conrad said that invitation should be put in writing and convey that township officials as well as residents are concerned about the issue.

“Senator Browne’s office seems to have significant influence with PPL,” said Eichenberg.

“This is a result of the federal government telling PPL what they have to do,” said Lancsek. “The local level is not going to have a whole lot to say about this.”

“We might have something to say, we may just not have as much influence,” said Conrad.

Resident Christopher Haller asked commissioners to get a commitment from PPL to wait, not just until after March 7, but “until residents have all their questions answered.”

He added: “I don’t want to see them out in my yard on March 8.”

“Until we got involved, they were ready to do it today,” said Eichenberg. “We got them to wait until March 7.”

Fosselman promised Heller he will see if PPL is willing to wait longer.

Lancsek said PPL has a right to remove trees, not just beneath the power lines, but within the company’s easement that flanks them.

Resident Amirha Hutto complained that none of her trees are touching the wires because she already had the tops of all of them removed. She added she is as tall as one of the trees PPL plans to remove.

Also during the meeting, Lt. Paul Gaspich, commander of the Pennsylvania state police station at Fogelsville, gave a presentation on the effectiveness of his department in Lower Macungie. “We are proud to be your primary police agency,” said Gaspich. “We are a big part of Lower Macungie. We are very proactive in the township and we cover your township very well.”

He said 40 percent of the 13,286 incidents his state troopers responded to in 2012 were in Lower Macungie, one of five townships it covers full time.

Gaspich did not mention it, but the township is having a study done that will look at whether Lower Macungie should continue having coverage provided by state police or create its own police department.