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Jul 1, 2014 5:18 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

State Department Of Public Service Says Chemical On East Hampton Utility Poles A Non-Issue

Jul 1, 2014 5:18 PM

After deeming PSEG’s overhead transmission line project in East Hampton “necessary” for the summer season, the State Department of Public Service also appears to be on the utility company’s side regarding the estimated cost to bury the transmission line, as well as the use of a chemical compound, penta, on utility poles.

A DPS review suggested that a similar project in Southampton Town several years ago—with the utility and affected property owners sharing the cost of burying the power lines—offered a way forward in East Hampton. But the study ignored a key fact: PSEG has so far refused to share the cost, a point that was left out of the report, and which “deeply disappointed” several officials.

The DPS conducted its own review of the project to determine the cost, a commitment it had made to the town following an April meeting between local and state officials opposed to the project. In a June 23 letter to Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell, addressing “concerns that have been expressed by public officials and individuals,” DPS Chair Audrey Zibelman said it would cost between $4 million and $6 million per mile to bury the 6.2-mile transmission line.

The total estimated cost of the project, she said, is $25 million to $37 million, which Ms. Zibelman described as “consistent” with PSEG Long Island’s estimate of $30 million.

The DPS estimate was arrived at by factoring in the “digging of trenches and the burying of conduit and associated cables along the selected route,” Ms. Zibelman said in her letter. The cost of labor, engineering and materials account for the majority of the price, she added.

The East Hampton project remains at a standstill after a stop-work order was issued at the Amagansett substation in April. PSEG filed a permanent injunction against the town that is still pending approval.

Opponents have objected to the new poles required for the transmission lines in the village, which stand between 50 and 55 feet tall; another seven are roughly 63 feet tall. A normal utility pole is about 40 to 45 feet tall. They have said the new poles will lower property values along the line’s path, and others have voiced concerns about public safety because of their proximity to homes, which in some cases is less than 20 feet.

Recently, opponents have focused attention on a wood preservative used on the pole as a way of challenging the project in court, alleging in a lawsuit that the substance can be hazardous.

Ms. Zibelman’s letter cited a similar project in Southampton in 2008, when an 8.7-mile transmission line from Southampton to Bridgehampton was buried, and the cost was split between the Long Island Power Authority and the ratepayers who benefited; LIPA paid 55 percent of the cost, and, via a special property tax, residents along the path covered 45 percent via Southampton Town. Opponents of that project had similar concerns about aesthetic and health impacts of the larger poles needed for the transmission line.

“As an initial matter, we see no reason to deviate from the procedure established in Southampton, in which the incremental costs of undergrounding are borne by the affected residents and guaranteed by the affected municipality,” Ms. Zibelman said in her letter. She went on to say that PSEG must work with the town to decide whether the entire line would be buried, adding that it is up to the municipality to determine who will benefit from the underground line and should therefore absorb the cost.

There is no mention of PSEG paying for any part of burying the line. PSEG has said in the past that it would not do so.

“The Department of Public Service’s independent review confirmed PSEG Long Island’s estimates,” said PSEG’s director of communications, Jeffrey Weir, in an email. “The reliability project will bring an enhanced level of electric service and resiliency to all of our customers across all of the Town of East Hampton. We remain committed to working with the DPS and the Town of East Hampton to underground the new line, as long as it is clear that the cost to underground the line must be borne by those in the town and not the rest of the Long Island ratepayers.”

Elected officials fired back at Ms. Zibelman’s letter only days later, stating they were “deeply disappointed in this report” and arguing that Ms. Zibelman’s letter is riddled with contradictions.

“You ignore the 55 percent paid for by LIPA customers and only focus on 45 percent of the project which was paid for by those in the local community,” said a letter to the DPS from Mr. Cantwell, East Hampton Village Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. and State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., among others.

The rebuttal letter asks once more why East Hampton is being treated differently from Southampton—a question elected officials have been asking the utility company from the beginning.

“I indicated to her [Ms. Zibelman] and her colleagues, the precedent was set in Southampton when they proceeded there, it’s repeated in the correspondence—what more can you say?” Mr. Rickenbach said in a phone interview on Friday. “I think we’re being treated differently, and that’s my point.”

The DPS also addressed the issue of pentachlorophenol, commonly known as penta, an allegedly “toxic” wood preservative used on new utility poles that have been installed in East Hampton. Penta may be used only by utility companies to treat utility poles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

After an “extensive review by the EPA” of the toxicity of the poles, the State Health Department has determined that “its use in approved applications would not pose an unreasonable risk to humans or the environment,” according to the letter.

But members of the local nonprofit Long Island Businesses for Responsible Energy, which recently filed a lawsuit against PSEG citing the compound’s health and safety hazards, beg to differ. The group sent its own rebuttal to Ms. Zibelman’s letter on June 27, outlining its own expert testimony and research regarding the hazards of the poles.

In April, LIBFRE hired Dermody Consulting Group, a third-party company, to test soil surrounding the poles. The consultants reported levels of penta nearly 300 times the level permitted by the State Department of Environmental Conservation.

“She didn’t address so many things in her letter—it’s appalling,” said LIBFRE Co-chair Rebecca Singer in a phone interview on Monday. “How could she not address the fact that the penta is 300 times the approved DEC rate? I don’t understand.”

Ms. Singer also took issue with New York State governmental agencies in general, claiming their purpose is to help residents, but that they do just the opposite.

“You really have to wonder what is going on with our government,” she said. “They’re here to protect the public—I thought that’s what they did. The fact that ... so many countries are planning to ban penta, and we say it’s not a problem, it doesn’t make sense.”

LIBFRE has been working with Pamela Miller, a research scientist on the review committee of the International Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, an environmental treaty made up of 148 countries plus the European Union. Ms. Miller wrote LIBFRE a letter expressing her support and stating that “PCP is either banned or has no use in all [European Union] member states,” adding that 179 nations, in addition to the EU, ratified a treaty banning use of the compound.

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