Tree Pruning Guidelines

QUESTION: Are there any published standards for use by utility companies to use when butchering trees and such in the utility easements? The town I live in, Bellville, uses the city electricians to butcher the trees. Upon contacting the city manager, I was coldly put off, and the electricians were sent back to my property to "trim" a tree that was deemed to be a hazard by the city manager. We decided to move to Bellville years ago in part because the city had chosen to pave a street around a large oak tree instead of cutting it down. The current city manager deems it a hazard also. I would appreciate any opinions, guidance or direction you could offer so I can present informed information on the 20th of May at the city council meeting, which I intend to address if I can assemble some useful information to share with council and the mayor concerning the butchering of the local trees by the electrical department.

ANSWER: You should be careful about calling the utility companies "butchers". If a catastrophic weather event should knock all of your electrical lines down because you kept the "butcher" at bay, I wonder if you and your neighbors might not react as the folks in California did -- read it and understand these workers provide a valuable and costly (if you had to pay for it!!) service:


The California Public Utilities (PUC) Commission on January 23, 1997, adopted tougher tree-trimming standards requiring the state's regulated electric utilities to keep overhead power lines clear of trees and other vegetation to reduce fire hazards and power outages.

The uniform standards are intended to protect public safety and ensure the reliability of California's electric distribution system during storms and natural disasters. The rules will also reduce the incidents of downed lines, power outages and fires caused by trees and branches falling against electric lines, the PUC said.

The tree-trimming standards will be phased in over two years in six-month increments through 1998 to minimize the financial cost to utility ratepayers. The commission directed its Energy Division to monitor utility compliance with the timetable and take appropriate enforcement action against any violations. The PUC could fine the utilities up to $20,000 per violation.

While the PUC has required utilities to maintain a "reasonable clearance" between power lines and foliage for over 60 years, recent events prompted the commission to adopt enforceable standards. Widespread power outages from winter storms, wildfires and two major blackouts on the Pacific Coast last summer have been caused by overgrown tree branches and other vegetation knocking against electrical lines in rural areas, the PUC said.

Moreover, in the 1996 state budget act, the California legislature directed the PUC to establish uniform tree-trimming requirements for regulated utilities to ensure the reliability of the state's power grid in a competitive electric industry.

The final rules are stricter than interim standards the PUC adopted last September in a settlement between the IOU and the Utilities Safety Branch, which required that a minimum six-inch clearance be maintained between low-voltage electrical conductors and vegetation.

The PUC concluded that a six-inch clearance would be inadequate to protect overhead lines from arcing and direct contact with moving tree branches, or to protect workers using hand tools. Moreover, it would be virtually impossible to monitor and enforce a six-inch distance from ground level, the commission said.

The potential for arcing and the possibility of trees contacting power lines was increased.

The standards require greater clearance distances for higher voltage power lines.

Utilities must maintain clearances that are visible from the ground and sufficient to protect the safety of people working near power lines. In many areas, greater clearances may be required by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF), the agency that enforces the state Public Resources Code governing utility tree trimming.

The PUC allowed exceptions for conductors carrying less than 60,000 volts in unusual circumstances where tree trimming is impractical or beyond the utility's control, or where a private property owner has refused the utility permission to conduct tree trimming.

The PUC will hold further hearings this spring to consider various unresolved issues, including how utilities should conduct tree trimming, local ordinances restricting trimming, tool use near overhead lines, adjacent property owners' rights and obligations, and overhead line safety issues.

Meanwhile, two counties in the Sierra Nevada mountains have filed criminal complaints against PG&E alleging that the utility's failure to maintain an adequate clearance around its power lines was responsible for devastating forest fires in 1992 and 1994 that caused substantial property damage.

A trial has been set for February 25 in Nevada County on misdemeanor charges against PG&E stemming from the 1994 Trauner wildfire near the historic Gold Rush town of Rough and Ready. State forestry officials concluded that the fire was caused by PG&E's failure to trim hundreds of trees around its high-voltage lines.

Nevada County prosecutors have charged PG&E with violating a 1963 state statute requiring utilities to maintain clearances of up to 10 feet around high-voltage lines. PG&E is the first utility to face criminal prosecution under the state law.

The utility faces up to $2-million in fines if convicted of all misdemeanor charges. PG&E pleaded not guilty to the charges, contending that the criminal complaint goes too far in alleging the utility negligently and knowingly violated state law.

Last November, a Nevada County judge ordered PG&E to release sealed documents that prosecutors contend prove that the utility's failure to trim trees was to blame for the Trauner wildfire. One of the documents was a 1995 survey of 5% of PG&E's overhead lines that found 5,093 instances of "tree-line contact" in which branches were directly touching or within four feet of lines.

PG&E initially conceded that the Trauner fire was caused by an oak tree limb striking a utility 21,000-volt line and it paid over $1-million in damage claims to the victims. However, last August the utility abruptly backed out of a plea bargain agreement after PG&E's chief executive officer, Stanley Skinner, personally overruled the settlement.

The utility is concerned that if Nevada County prevails in its suit, it could be used as a precedent elsewhere. Last August, neighboring Placer County filed a 1,114-count criminal lawsuit against PG&E because of a 1992 wildfire that likewise was caused by a tree limb hitting a utility power line.

Meanwhile, Butte County has filed a civil suit charging PG&E with unfair and unlawful business practices, and other counties throughout PG&E's service area are considering bringing similar complaints against the utility, prosecutors said.

PG&E assumed responsibility for a wildfire in the Sonoma County wine country last August that was ignited by a tree limb striking a high-voltage line, destroying 2,100 acres of vineyards and homes. The utility agreed to pay up to $8-million in property damage claims and $2-million in firefighting costs related to the blaze.

PG&E has accelerated its tree trimming program in the past year, spending $70-million in 1995 and $100-million in 1996, a PG&E spokesman said. The utility trimmed 1.8 million trees in 1996, averaging 150,000 trees/month. "The purpose of the tree inventory was to identify where our crews were to work this fall or next spring," he said.

So, ONE MAN'S DEVIL IS ANOTHER'S SAVIOR or scape goat!!! Texas does not presently have any guidelines but are in the process of adopting some to protect themselves from people who want to sue them for loss of life and property -- the same folks who called them "butchers" a few months earlier!!!!