Suffolk Closeup: Power company facing pushback

PSEG, which at the start of 2014 became the electric utility on Long Island under a scheme advanced by Governor Andrew Cuomo, is finally beginning to get an earful from its customers on the East End.

PETER BOODY FILE PHOTO | A LIPA crew at work to fix an outage following Tropical Storm Irene.
PETER BOODY FILE PHOTO | A LIPA crew at work to fix an outage following Tropical Storm Irene.

Suffolk County Legislator Thomas Muratore has introduced a bill to reactivate a legislative committee with “oversight” over the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA). Originally his bill specifically called for county oversight of PSEG — which has floated the idea of an electrical substation here — but the Legislature’s attorney questioned the county having the power for oversight of the New Jersey company, so the measure was reworded.

“We should have oversight of all public utilities,” Mr. Muratore said last week. A constituent, he added, just complained to him “that my electric bill went up $100 in a month.”

When it comes to utilities, Mr. Muratore declared: “Why isn’t anyone watching the henhouse?”

Suffolk Legislator Jay Schneiderman, who represents Shelter Island, complains that the Cuomo scheme has “saddled us with a private company from New Jersey that is entirely for profit.” PSEG is all but exempt from control by the state Public Service Commission, which is only allowed to make “recommendations” to PSEG under the Cuomo plan. “It’s a bad arrangement,” said Mr. Schneiderman, “and you can see it with the electric rates increasing and PSEG’s callous approach to transmission lines.”

As to high-voltage transmission lines recently installed, running atop poles as high as 65 feet for more than six miles between East Hampton Village and Amagansett, a lawsuit has been brought against PSEG and LIPA. It demands the poles be removed and $50 million in damages.

Bringing the class action lawsuit are members of Long Island Businesses for Responsible Energy and others, including longtime East Hampton Town Natural Resources Director Larry Penny of Noyac. They couldn’t have gotten two more experienced attorneys: Irving Like of Babylon is co-author of the Environmental Bill of Rights of the New York State Constitution and Louis Friedman is Distinguished Professor of Civil Liberties Law at Hofstra University School of Law.

The suit charges the poles “have caused serious injury and will continue to cause serious injury.” It cites their being “treated with a wood preservative that contains pentachlorophenol” or PCP that “leaches into the soil” and is now happening “close to plaintiffs’ homes. PCP is a dangerous poison that causes serious injury in humans if its fumes are inhaled or the poison seeps into water tables. That is precisely what is beginning to occur.”

The Washington Toxics Coalition, the lawsuit notes, says PCP “is so toxic that it is banned in 26 countries yet the United States continues to allow registration and use of this chemical for treating utility poles.” PCP, it says, “is devastating to human health and the environment. It is classified as a possible carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency.”

And not only those who live near the poles will be affected. “Suffolk County’s groundwater aquifers are the sole source of its residents’ drinking water and thus all residents may be affected by PCP infiltration of the aquifers.”

Then there’s the high-voltage lines producing “harmful and dangerous electric magnetic fields,” or EMFs. The lawsuit cites “many scientific studies have shown that continuous exposure to high voltage lines that produce” EMFs “can cause cancer, especially in children.” Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health & Environment at the University of Albany-SUNY, says “reports since 2000 have generally confirmed an association between exposure to magnetic fields from power lines and childhood cancer.”

Further, the lawsuit speaks of the poles and lines “significantly” lowering the value of homes near them “because these properties are perceived by prospective buyers as being dangerous to the health of the residents.” More than 300 homes “are now devalued because of the new poles and lines,” it continues.

The troubles with above-ground power lines, the lawsuit says, also include “frequent storms that strike Suffolk County” and cause “extended periods of power shortages,” a problem eliminated by lines being placed underground. Yet “among the possible alternatives never mentioned” in the official environmental impact statement for the project “was the undergrounding of the lines.”

Meanwhile, PSEG is engaged in pushback, too. Example: AARP Long Island hosted a telephone conference call last week in which 12,000 people participated about a bill now in the State Legislature that would create a State Office of the Utility Consumer Advocate to represent interests of residential utility customers.

It was reported on the call that a utility now lobbying hard in Albany against the bill is PSEG.

grossman_karl150 Karl Grossman’s syndicated “Suffolk Closeup” column is printed in the Shelter Island Reporter, a Times/Review Newsgroup publication.