Utilities, public clash on tree-trimming policies

Property owners outraged at what they contend are overly aggressive tree trimming practices by investor-owned electric utilities will have a chance to comment on proposed safeguards.

The Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor will hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. May 24 in Room 222 of PNC Center, 101 W. Washington St.

Last year, after a 19-month investigation, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission issued an order that seeks to strike a balance between ensuring that trees don’t cause electrical outages and making sure trees aren’t needlessly mauled.

Among terms of the proposed order, affected customers would have to receive at least a two-week notice before trimming begins. Trimming could be postponed if a property owner objects within five days of receiving the notice.

The issue of whether utilities or their contractors are too aggressive in cutting back trees came to a head in 2002, when Driftwood Hills residents filed suit against Indianapolis Power & Light. They alleged trimming crews went overboard and defaced the neighborhood.

A settlement was reached, but complaints surfaced again in subsequent years.

In 2010, IPL warned that changes to its tree trimming practices could cost it— and ultimately ratepayers—$100 million, and “cripple” the company.

In its most recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the utility doesn’t mention a $100 million cost catastrophe. It noted that the IURC had recently proposed some relief to utilities, including the ability to remove vegetation without customer notification when there is a public safety issue.

Now, IPL says an unfavorable final rule could hurt its distribution reliability and vegetation removal costs, “which could have a material impact on our consolidated financial statements.”

Utilities also subject to the proposed trimming rule are Duke Energy, Indiana Michigan Power, Northern Indiana Public Service and Vectren.

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