September 20, 2008

PG&E Cut Trees in Pinole Without State Permit, Could Be Penalized

By Tom Lochner

Pacific Gas & Electric cut down trees in a Pinole creekbed last month without a permit and could be forced to replace them, though where is another question, a state agency says.

A homeowner on Sarah Drive blew the whistle on PG&E after a tree service hired by the utility clear-cut an approximately 80- to 100- foot section along a narrow stream known locally as Cole Creek, a tributary of Pinole Creek.

The cutting, which took place Aug. 25, could lead to an order forcing the utility to plant replacement trees and repair riparian habitat -- but not necessarily at the same spot or even the same creek or watershed, said state Fish and Game Warden Nicole Kozicki.

PG&E has said that tightened federal and state regulations are forcing it to be more proactive in cutting trees and brush near power lines. The utility has an easement across some Sarah Drive properties to access overhead lines that carry 115,000-volt current. PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian said the utility needs to maintain a 10-foot distance between its high-tension power lines and vegetation to prevent fires.

Sarah Drive homeowners Sheldon Coad and Kathy Kerr Coad say the trees that were cut were not even close to within 10 feet of PG&E's power lines. Previously, the utility would come by every two years to trim the trees, they say.

Kozicki has visited the site since the cut and said she did not see a need for the utility to remove the trees. What is clear is that PG&E would have needed a "streambed alteration permit" to do the work but did not get one, she said.

"If a project has an effect on a creek, bank or riparian habitat, you need to submit a notification to Fish and Game," Kozicki said. "If it involves vegetation removal, you have to be specific, whether it's at ground level or topping trees."

Department of Fish and Game environmental scientists review the proposal and evaluate its likely effect on fish and wildlife, then they draft a streambed alteration agreement that includes mitigation of the impacts, Kozicki said. The state agency also can reduce the scope of the project. If the agency and applicant cannot agree, they go to arbitration.

If an entity does work that negatively alters a streambed without a permit, Fish and Game could cite it for violations, including a criminal misdemeanor violation, and order revegetation or other remediation, Kozicki said.

Kozicki said PG&E told her that it is looking into the matter and trying to determine who is responsible.

PG&E told the Times this week and last that it is still trying to sort out what happened.

No one from Davey Tree Surgery Co. of Livermore, which cuts and trims trees for PG&E, returned a call seeking comment.

The Coads lament the destruction of riparian habitat and how its loss will affect the wildlife they have enjoyed living near during their almost three decades in their house; the destroyed vegetation includes willow trees as well as blackberry bushes and other brush that shelters raccoons, skunks, squirrels, opossums and birds.

They say they feel betrayed because a forestry consultant for PG&E told them in June that no trees needed to be cut on their property. The clear-cut swath goes up to their property line, and they fear the trees, blackberry bushes and other brush behind their house could go next.

But the Coads' affection for the creekside plants and their denizens is not shared by their next-door neighbor, Thelma McPherson.

"I was delighted when they cut it," McPherson said. Raccoons stripped all the fiberglass insulation from the heating ducts under her house several years ago, causing more than $3,000 damage, she said.

If Fish and Game orders PG&E to do revegetation, that could begin around December. Potential sites, in descending order of preference, could be along the same creek, a tributary, elsewhere in the Pinole Creek watershed or elsewhere in Contra Costa County, Kozicki said.

Reach Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760 or [email protected]

Originally published by Tom Lochner, West County Times.

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