Powerless: Patchwork of responsibility for keeping power lines clear of trees, brush ignites frustration (2024)

Poor maintenance can have deadly consequences, but critics say the public is often left in the dark

By Caresse Jackman and Emily Featherston

Published: Jul. 8, 2024 at 2:52 PM EDT

(InvestigateTV) — Walking through her old backyard in Detroit, Michigan, Edith Lee-Payne has fond memories of her former home, but also heartbreaking ones.

“It’s overwhelming. It’s disappointing, and it’s frightening,” Edith Lee-Payne said of the July 2003 fire that uprooted her life.

The Michigan Department of State Police’s fire incident report shows the origin of the fire began on the back porch, likely from a short circuit. However, Lee-Payne said she still believes the origin was a few feet away. She claims that her utility company, DTE Energy, left several dead trees near her home when the company did its maintenance vegetation trimming — one of which she said fell onto the line servicing her home and ultimately led to the fire.

“During a line clearance cycle, in 2001, they left six dead trees. Because they left the dead trees back there, one fell. One of the six fell onto their service drop – the line that brings electricity into the house and caused a power surge, [which] started an electrical fire,” Lee-Payne said.

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DTE disputes Lee-Payne’s argument, maintaining that service drops, or the lines going to a home, are a customer’s responsibility. While insurance paid for some of the damage, Lee-Payne had to dip into life savings to pay for the rest.

Trees provide essential benefits to communities by cleaning the air, lowering temperatures and improving property values, but they often come into conflict with electrical power infrastructure.

According to federal data, tree vegetation coming into contact with power lines is a leading cause of electricity outages — in some cases causing deadly blackouts and wildfires.

InvestigateTV found there’s a patchwork of rules outlining who oversees the management of this electrical hazard, which can cause confusion, create conflict and leave customers like Lee-Payne feeling powerless.

“People have already been killed,” Lee-Payne said. “In spite of what this company owes me, my family could have been killed.”

An ‘unfortunate’ reality

Nobody was hurt during the 2003 fire, a fact she attributes largely to the blaze occurring during waking hours.

“The redeeming factor is that it happened during the day,” Lee-Payne said.

Still, the financial toll was significant, so she took DTE Energy and her insurer to court in 2006, but the case was dismissed in favor of the companies.

In 2009, Lee-Payne filed a formal complaint against the power company with the Michigan Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in the state, alleging again that DTE violated commission regulations by failing to properly clear trees from power lines near her home prior to the 2003 fire.

The administrative law judge who presided over the quasi-judicial proceeding, including an evidentiary hearing, found that DTE’s line clearance was properly carried out with respect to Lee-Payne’s property. While acknowledging that the fire “was unfortunate,” the judge agreed with the original court decision and determined that DTE “did not violate any commission rules or regulations in its performance of line clearance activities” because the tree in question was on private property, rather than in a utility easem*nt, so it was the customer’s responsibility.

In 2022, Lee-Payne experienced another fire, which she maintains was caused by a power surge despite DTE claiming the company has no evidence of an equipment issue on their end.

Lee-Payne said she has continued to fight, expressing her concerns multiple times to DTE and by speaking directly to the Commission during a public hearing following the 2022 fire.

She said she fears people will get hurt if tree and power line conflicts in the Detroit metro area are not addressed.

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In response to questions from InvestigateTV about Lee-Payne’s experience and the company’s overall approach to vegetation management, a spokesperson said the company has been “aggressively trimming or removing trees along its power lines in the utility right of way,” but reiterated that customers are responsible for the trees on their property that are near service lines. Regarding Lee-Payne’s specific experience, the company pointed to the decisions made by the court and commission.

“Ms. Payne’s claim that a 2003 house fire was caused by inadequate line clearance has already been litigated and both matters were dismissed by the Michigan Public Service Commission and Wayne County Circuit Court. DTE has no further comments,” the spokesperson said.

Although the Commission dismissed Lee-Payne’s complaint, her story highlights the quagmire many property owners face when it comes to who is truly responsible for maintaining trees in close proximity to power lines.

Commission chair Dan Scripps said he recognizes the frustration that can result from such confusion.

“It’s an old system,” he said. “There are challenges with some of the back lots or alleyway systems where the city, a long time ago, sort of gave up those alleys to the residents, and as a result, you’ve seen not a lot of vegetation management.”

That can make things difficult, Scripps said, but there’s not much to be done.

“The reality is, that’s the system that we have, and we need to live in the reality that we’re facing,” he said.

Living in that reality can mean spending time in the dark: DTE has reported that for Detroit customers, about half the time the lights are off can be attributed to vegetation coming into conflict with power lines.

Around the country, the consequences are the same — if not worse.

A nationwide issue

In 2003, a blackout crippled much of the Northeast United States and parts of Canada, leaving millions of people in the dark. Nearly 100 deaths were ultimately attributed to the blackout, and the overall economic cost was estimated at $4 to 6 billion — or $6.8 to 10.2 billion in 2024 dollars — with some estimates being even higher.

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A federal investigative report determined that the outage that affected more than 50 million people was primarily caused by inadequate vegetation management, finding that “had all the trees, which contributed to outage been adequately pruned or removed prior to the event, the blackout would likely have not occurred.”

Tree and power line conflicts have also caused significant wildfires across North America.

A state-contracted investigation into the deadly California wildfires in 2017 and 2018 found the blazes were initially caused by vegetation issues that the state’s major utility company should have known about and addressed if it was following state law or industry standards.

“If a tree comes into contact with a utility line, there are some significant problems that can occur,” said Lawrence Kahn, an attorney and researcher with the Tulane Center for Environmental Law, which developed a program to train lawyers in the complexities of maintaining utility lines.

InvestigateTV analyzed electricity reliability data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and found that on average, customers are left in the dark from two to four hours at least once each year.

According to federal records, Mother Nature plays a major part in many of those outages.

Data collected by USEIA for major power disruptions from the last several years shows that roughly 85% of significant outages each year were caused by severe weather or a natural disaster.

The data doesn’t specify, but Kahn said it’s more than likely vegetation was involved in most of those weather-related events, such as blowing limbs snapping lines.

“If you’ve ever been in a situation where you don’t have power at home, chances are it’s because a tree came into contact with the power line,” Kahn said.

In a survey done by the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, utility companies themselves reported that on average, nearly a quarter, or 23.2%, of all outages in 2019 were “attributable to vegetation.”

Vegetation management has long been noted by federal officials as a strategy to improve grid resiliency, but as research by Kahn’s team has found and experiences like that of Edith Lee-Payne demonstrate — there is agreement that management is needed, but who is responsible for it is a different story.

“If you’re taking very good care of your trees, who’s to say your neighbor is taking equally good care of your neighbor’s trees? The answer is, you can’t have that kind of confidence without knowing your neighbors very well beyond that,” Kahn said.

Oversight not uniform

While strategy and accountability are a factor, Kahn said he and others believe those tasked with monitoring utility companies should be doing more to reduce the number of times power is disrupted by vegetation-related issues.

“The question is-who’s enforcing that? Who’s really making sure it happens,” Kahn said.

Enforcement is not uniform across the country.

Major utilities are subject to federal standards requiring things such as annual inspections and documented plans to ensure lines are kept clear, otherwise, utilities are regulated at the state level, meaning requirements can vary from state to state.

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For example, both Oklahoma and Connecticut require that utilities submit annual maintenance plans, but Oklahoma law specifies vegetation management must be done on a 4-year cycle, where Connecticut leaves the decision about timing up to each company.

Michigan’s utility commissioner Dan Scripps said states having some independence is a positive — especially since different states have different challenges to face.

So, Michigan has a different system than Arizona, for example, where there are very much fewer trees. They have less of a problem with ice than we do,” Scripps explained, “and so, some of those regional differences ultimately lead to different approaches.”

Meanwhile, tree-verses-power line conflicts continue to be a topic of conversation in Washington, D.C. as electric grid resiliency remains a popular priority.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Grid Deployment Office told InvestigateTV the DOE has two funding programs under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — the Grid Resilience State and Tribal Formula Grants and the Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships (GRIP) program — that include projects for which vegetation management is an included tactic to be deployed. According to the spokesperson, those projects will be monitored as part of DOE’s award management processes.

For Lee-Payne, she said she won’t stop fighting until she sees power companies take more responsibility for clearing all trees from all power lines.

“I want to see this come to fruition because, most importantly, people’s lives are at stake,” she said. “I don’t want to see anybody else lose any property, as I have, and other people have to deal with this.”

Copyright 2024 Gray Media Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Powerless: Patchwork of responsibility for keeping power lines clear of trees, brush ignites frustration (2024)

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