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Right of Way Clearing for Transmission Lines

March 30, 2011

Before we look at the specifics of the TrAIL Complaint hearings, we need to look at the terms of discussion in the case.  In its order setting the original date of this hearing, the WV PSC stated that the case would be limited to violations of the PSC’s 2008 TrAIL Certificate of Need order of 2008 with respect to “right-of-way clearing and maintenance.”  Here is a link to that order, which also includes an excellent summary of the issues raised by the complainants in the case.

So, what are we talking about when we discuss transmission line right of way clearing?  I have added emphasis to phrases that best summarize the practices described.

Here is how Allegheny Energy (now FirstEnergy) describes it on their TrAIL Web site

How will right-of-way be cleared and maintained for TrAIL?

TrAILCo has adopted construction specifications for TrAIL that are designed to minimize environmental impact. Right-of-way clearing must be performed to ensure proper clearances, safe operation and safe access for construction, line inspection and maintenance operations. Initial clearing will include the removal of woody vegetation from the full width of the right-of-way, with brush and logs piled separately along the edges of the cleared right-of-way. Any timber that is cleared from the right-of-way and access roads belongs to the property owner, and will be stacked at the edge of the right-of-way or another agreed-upon location.

When I was researching this issue, I googled information about other power companies transmission line clearing practices.  Here is the description from the Web site of Northeast Utilities, one of the largest power companies in New England -

Construction Phases:

  1. The initial clearing produces the most significant results. It is limited to where construction access and operations are required and an environmentally sensitive clearing method is used. A professionally designed harvesting plan is used that involves removing all trees and a significant amount of lower-growing vegetation. This clearing not only helps with the construction process, it allows us to manage the growth of species desirable to a shrubland habitat, and to control unwanted species that would otherwise compete with the native plants and compromise the safe operation and maintenance of the electric system.We also:
    • Do not use herbicides during construction clearing.
    • Limit clearing only to those areas where new facilities will be installed. We don’t clear the entire width of a right-of-way if construction will only take place on a portion of that corridor.
    • Do not remove stumps, unless a stump is where a structure or new access road is to be located. In this way we preserve the soil conditions and minimize ground disruption.
    • Install matting within previously marked wetland areas, to protect those areas and facilitate their restoration.
    • Improve access roads for safer working conditions and to contain the impact of construction traffic to limited areas within the right-of-way.
    • Identify areas where species of concern are located to prevent potential damage or harm to them.
  2. Throughout construction, vegetation will naturally reestablish, so there is an ongoing need for maintenance clearing to ensure that vegetation does not interfere with construction equipment and crews.
  3. Then, when construction is complete, we perform finishing work that includes removing or trimming any remaining hazardous trees.

So we see here two very different approaches to right of way clearing.  The “take it all off” approach Allegheny put on its Web site, however, was not what they told the WV PSC they would do.

In their TrAIL certificate of necessity (CoN) case, Allegheny Energy presented as evidence in the case a document called Line Route Evaluation and Environmental Report prepared by Louis Berger Associates (yes, the same ones that sent the bat guys on PATH) and Commonwealth Associates, Inc.  Here is the description in this report of how clearing would be done on the TrAIL project:

Right-of-way clearing would require the removal of all trees within a 150-foot cleared right-of-way that could potentially grow close to conductors. Additionally, TrAILCo would remove danger trees (trees of sufficient height to come into contact with the conductor if the trees were to fall) from an additional 25 feet on each side of the cleared
right-of-way. In total, the right-of-way would be 200-feet wide.

TrAILCo’s right-of-way clearing specifications have three distinct classes of clearing which specify what vegetation is allowed to remain in various sections of the right-of-way. Class I clearing would be the basic type of clearing, occurring in all right-of-way areas with the exception of stream and road crossings or other designated areas. Class I clearing would require the removal of all woody vegetation within the 150-foot cleared right-of-way described above, with grasses, ferns, herbaceous plants, and seedlings of shrub species remaining. Class II clearing would occur in designated areas such as those with high visibility or wildlife needs. Class II clearing would remove all woody vegetation within the conductor path (80-feet) with low growing vegetation, including shrubs such as azalea, huckleberries, blueberries, and rhododendron being allowed in the remaining 35-feet on each side of the cleared right-of-way. Class III clearing would occur within 100 feet of streams, at designated road crossings, and in areas of high public use. In Class III clearing areas, low growing woody vegetation, such as those species listed in Class II clearing, would remain under the conductor path up to 5-feet in height. Outside the conductor path, low growing flowering trees and shrubs, such as dogwoods, spicebush, elder, and scrub oak would remain up to 25-feet in height.

And later in the Line Route Evaluation:

Efforts to maximize shade cover, prevent destabilization of stream banks, and minimize sedimentation and pollutant inputs in areas where the study area crosses or parallels a stream, would minimize affects to aquatic species and habitat. Certain species of low growing vegetation not exceeding five feet in height would remain in the conductor path within 100 feet of streams and at designated road crossings. Certain species of low growing vegetation generally not exceeding 10 feet in height would be allowed in the remaining width of the right-of-way, in addition to certain species of low growing flowering trees and shrubs, generally not exceeding 25 feet in height (MS 2400-03 R07).

And:

Vegetation within 100-feet of stream banks, which would encompass much of the riparian vegetation in most locations, would have Class III clearing, which allows some woody/shrubby vegetation to remain.

Here are two illustrations that were included with the TrAIL application to the PSC:

The highlighting was added by TrAIL Complainant John Coleman to show that  Allegheny had committed itself to only use Class 1 clearing  in the immediate areas around the base of the steel towers, but that “Class 1 clearing will not be used in West Virginia.”  That is an unambiguous statement.  You can click on each picture so you can enlarge it and view it more closely.

Mr. Coleman offered another slide in his testimony yesterday that summarized specific references to “initial clearing” for the TrAIL line from the PSC final order in that case, including the stipulations and agreements that were incorporated into that order.  Here is a link to that summary.

So in this post, we have three different types of initial right of way clearing described -

  1. Clearing as described by Allegheny Energy on its Web site which states that all vegetation will be removed for the whole width of a 200′ wide right of way.
  2. Northeast Utilities’ method of minimizing soil disturbance, not removing stumps and protecting wetland areas with special matting designed to avoid equipment tracking and damage to vegetation.
  3. What Allegheny told the WV PSC they were going to do:
  • No Class 1 clearing (that is clearing where all vegetation is removed, as described on the TrAIL Web site) except right around towers
  • Using only Class 2 clearing (as described above in the Route Evaluation) under the wires and along most of the center of the right of way
  • 150′ in the center of the right of way would be Class 2 clearing with Class 3 clearing on the remaining 25′ on each edge of the 200′ right of way
  • Creating 100′ buffers on either side of streams where all low growing trees and woody brush would not be cleared

Although Berger’s Route Evaluation recommended that Class 1 clearing be used on a 150′ wide strip at the middle of the right of way, Allegheny specifically stated that is would use no Class 1 (complete vegetation removal) clearing in West Virginia.

Mr. Coleman obtained complete engineering diagrams in discovery from Allegheny which indicated what class of clearing was to be used in what areas of the TrAIL right of way.  Then Mr. Coleman took aerial photos of most of the TrAIL line in April 2010.  He presented his photographic evidence in the PSC hearing yesterday in the TrAIL Complaint case.

Here is just one of the photos showing an area that was designated as entirely Class 2 or Class 3 clearing in Allegheny’s construction/clearing map.  I have cropped it some so that it is a little smaller.

You will note that there is no vegetation on the full width of the 200′ wide right of way.  Allegheny’s own clearing specifications, incorporated into the PSC’s Final Order in the TrAIL case, stated that there would be none of this kind of Class 1 clearing in West Virginia except for the areas around the base of the power line towers.

Mr. Coleman showed Commissioners McKinney and Palmer more than 50 slides like this yesterday of photographs that encompassed probably dozens of acres along the TrAIL right of way.

As you can imagine, the Commissioners and Allegheny’s attorneys were very interested in these photographs.

I’ll have more information on the hearings later in the week, but I wanted to give you a clear picture of why yesterday’s hearing was so dramatic.

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