Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) agreed last week to hold off on implementing its plan to cut down hundreds of trees, including 390 along major thoroughfares in Pleasanton, as part of its robust effort to improve natural gas pipeline safety.
The agreement came after Mayor Jerry Thorne and City Manager Nelson Fialho met with other elected East Bay officials and Eric Figueroa of the League of California Cities to coordinate and consolidate strategy to fight the tree-cutting plan.
PG&E's plan came to light when representatives of the utility, appearing as the new sheriffs of the East Bay, walked into the Pleasanton planning department to obtain permits to start their tree-cutting work. Among those to be uprooted were trees on First Street, Sunol Boulevard, Foothill Road and Stanley Boulevard, including some designated as heritage trees and some 100 years old.
PG&E says it needs to clear-cut its large distribution pipeline corridor along the streets to provide good sightlines for aerial surveys and to protect its 50-year-old pipeline from possible penetrations by tree roots.
Besides Pleasanton, the PG&E tree team sought permits in Walnut Creek (where more than 700 trees are slated to be cut, including many along Locust Street downtown), in Hayward (where more than 1,000 trees would be removed), and also Danville, Concord and Livermore, 15 East Bay cities in all.
Trees, regardless of age, height or type, are on PG&E's tree-cutting chart if roots are within 10 feet of the pipeline. A precise list of sites affected isn't yet known because cities don't know where the pipeline was buried 50 years ago, and PG&E so far has refused to provide a map, worried that terrorists might get hold of it.
PG&E first met with Pleasanton city staff at the utility's request to discuss pipeline maintenance, but instead used the time to announce its intentions to start cutting down the tress. PG&E provided very little information on what trees needed to be removed and why. Nor were its representatives there to answer any questions.
According to Thorne, they seemed intent on letting Pleasanton know that PG&E has the absolute authority to preempt any and all local processes and proceed with tree and brush removal absent any local input or review. Further, they stated that they wanted to start "soon" and to complete the tree removal project within the public right-of-way by June. They also said they would be starting immediately to remove trees located within easements on private property. They told other cities the same thing.
PG&E's agreement to hold up on the tree cutting only applies to the cities involved. The utility plans to forge ahead on private properties and has sent notices to those property owners that it will start immediately.
Not so fast, Pleasanton staff say and has sent its own notices to the same owners advising them of the city's intent to fight the tree-cutting plans, in court if necessary. Property owners who have received notices should contact City Engineer Steve Kirkpatrick for more information.
There's no question that Pleasanton and all other cities where PG&E's large distribution pipelines are buried want the best protection and maintenance possible to protect the population. Given the gas pipeline explosion in 2010 in San Bruno, gas pipeline safety is foremost in everyone's mind.
It's also no doubt a top priority for PG&E, which faces billions of dollars in fines and penalties based on a criminal indictment issued this week.
But it's also fair to ask how trees with fairly shallow roots, with the possible exception of oak and palm trees, threaten a pipeline buried 8-12 feet down. Also, many of the trees targeted by PG&E are much older than the pipeline, which was installed 50 years ago next to the trees that were already there.
In the criminal indictment of PG&E last week, PG&E's failure to document maintenance and repair procedures over the years had a major influence on the grand jurors who voted for the charges. The utility's claim here over possible tree root intrusion and its obstructionist attitude in answering basic questions by Pleasanton and other East Bay city leaders adds to our suspicion of an arrogant operations structure once again.