IPL prohibited from tree-trimming 

IURC rules in favor of private property

The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) spent months investigating the tree trimming practices of electric utilities around the state.

The commission heard testimony from six locations, where complaints varied from abuses of power to comments about "tree butcherings." Indianapolis resident Pat Easterday testified that she confronted tree trimming crews on her property after they cut down 73 of her trees.

Other electric utility customers complained of debris left on private property by crews who cut trees or brush and never came back to clean up.

The most recent development is the commission's decision to suspend Indianapolis Power and Light's freedom to trim trees on private property at the discretion of the company. This preliminary suspension will be in place until the final order of the IURC investigation.

IPL spokesman Don Hart says that IPL will file an appeal to the suspension, reiterating "IPL's obligation to provide safe, reliable service, which requires maintaining proper clearances around our lines."

In September, NUVO reported on the testimony filed by customers of utilities around the state (www.nuvo.net/news/article/views-clash-utility-tree-trimming-hearing).

IPL has a tariff, or charter, which states that it has "the right to trim and remove trees located on customer's property, as, in the company's judgment, are reasonably necessary to the operation and maintenance of such facilities."

The above language has drawn the attention of the IURC and seems to be at the root of the complaints and concerns heard during testimonials.

Commission public information officer Danielle McGrath says that they have "highlighted this provision in IPL's tariff to look at more closely."

Citizen activists Charlie Goodman and Jerry Baker, who were crucial in garnering attention to the tree trimming issue, claim that IPL does not respect property rights. They believe that IPL interprets the language in their own tariff too broadly in terms of which trees are necessary to remove.

Danielle McGrath says that the language in IPL's tariff was red-flagged because no other utility in the state has a similar charter for its tree trimming procedures. The IURC determined that the lack of such provisions do not hinder other utilities' ability to provide service. But McGrath also noted that the landscape of each utility's service area varies, therefore practices must also vary accordingly.

According to McGrath, the IURC's decision to look at the tariff more closely has been misconstrued in the media. It does not constitute anything final. The IURC final evidentiary hearing is set to take place Jan. 5. After the hearing McGrath observes that it may take some time to analyze all the evidence before a final ruling is made.

Until that time, IPL crews can still venture onto private property.

Groups say Indiana pollution rules do not meet standards

On Dec. 17, the Hoosier Environmental Council, The Sierra Club Hoosier Chapter and the Environmental Law & Policy Center submitted a petition asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to correct serious flaws in the Indiana water pollution control program, which is administered by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM).

The petition contends that Indiana's programs do not protect the waterways of the Hoosier State. The push for stricter water quality standards largely comes from the revelation that Indiana does not have antidegradation rules in place, which are a key component of the Clean Water Act.

Steve Francis of the Hoosier Chapter of the Sierra Club said, "It is our intention that IDEM will take seriously its responsibility to prevent the further degradation of water quality, enforce the laws fully and safeguard the health and welfare of Indiana citizens."

When the EPA adopted antidegradation rules in 1975, many contended not enough was done to convince states to adopt their own antidegradation rules and enforce them. Recently, IDEM has drafted such rules which are now in a public comment stage before being finalized. IDEM originally attempted to accomplish this, though unsuccessfully, as early as 1997.

Senior attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center Albert Ettinger calls the draft of antidegradation rules unsatisfactory. When asked why the petition pre-empted finalization of IDEM's draft, Ettinger replied, "The ship has hit the iceberg, we don't have to watch it sink."

Ettinger goes on to note other major problems for Indiana water quality, saying coal mine regulation in Indiana is deficient and that concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, continue to be a problem. Both issues are addressed in the petition to the EPA.

The petition takes issue with the proposed Bear Run coal mine in Sullivan County to be opened by Peabody Energy. The mine would be the largest surface mine east of the Mississippi River, and has drawn flak from environmentalists who claim it operates under a permit that gives the public no meaningful opportunity to comment.

The Tribune-Star in Terre Haute reported in March that the new mine would employ 350 workers and eventually produce eight million tons of coal a year. Governor Daniels praised the job opportunities the mine would provide.

The fear for Ettinger is that loose permitting will harm waterways around the mine, "They're willing to permit huge strip mines with no more consideration than you would give a one-acre construction site," he says.

After submitting the petition to the regional and national offices of the EPA, the coalition of environmental organizations will wait to hear what action will be taken. Ettinger feels that the EPA will wait until well past the holiday season before taking any action. If the process is formalized, it could take a year for a ruling to come down. The EPA may also informally direct IDEM to take action if they feel it necessary.

Ettinger says he has worked on similar cases in many different states, "each state has its own way of doing things wrong," he said. After his experience with other states, Ettinger feels there is a strong precedent for the petition to be successful.

In response to criticism over the antidegradation rules IDEM has drafted, which are now open to public comment, IDEM's public information officer Amy Hartsock points out, "The entities represented in the petition were part of the drafting process and participated in many of the meetings."

Hartsock added that IDEM has worked vigorously to reduce backlogged water permits and received a "two gold star" award from the EPA, one of only eight states to achieve the honor. Hartsock also claims Indiana is a leader in renewing and updating facilities' permits, which is essential to protecting and improving water quality.

According to Hartsock, the antidegradation rule making is in its second notice of comment period. The public may submit comments until Jan. 30, 2010. The antidegradation overview can be found at the IDEM website: www.in.gov/idem/antideg_overview_092009.pdf. For more information go to www.in.gov/idem/5387.htm, hecweb.org and http://indiana.sierraclub.org/

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