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Published April 9th, 2014
Local Governments Stop PG&E Tree Cutting Project - For Now

Pacific Gas and Electric Company officials announced March 27 that they are putting a hold on tree removal related to the utility's Pipeline Pathways safety program in East Bay communities, except on private properties by agreement with property owners. The statement was made in the aftermath of an organized revolt by affected cities against the agency's campaign to clear a pathway above its gas lines that would include the cutting down of thousands of trees.
The quick reaction of the jurisdictions that formed a coalition to stop the tree removal was very effective in changing the agency's attitude from one of "we can do what we want" to "let's partner and find a solution together." Lamorinda cities participated in a general meeting March 21 to share information; Lafayette and Moraga didn't hesitate to make forceful statements opposing tree removal without a permit.
In his address to the City Council on March 24, Lafayette's city manager, Steven Falk, explained that the purpose of PG&E's project was to create a clear pathway above all of its gas transmission pipelines, allowing PG&E to better maintain, inspect, and safely operate the system. All trees within 10 feet on either side of the center line of a gas transmission pipe would be cut down, and all trees with canopies that extend into the 20-foot pathway margin would either be removed or trimmed. PG&E claimed the right to remove trees in the public right of way without the need for local permits and authorization.
Lafayette City Council members reacted strongly to the tree removal plan. Mayor Mike Anderson noted that some of the trees are well over 200 years old, predating the pipelines, and exclaimed, "This is the most ham-fisted effort I've ever heard!" Councilmember Mark Mitchell suggested it "might be easier to move the pipelines than move the trees." Lafayette was one of eight cities to sign a letter to PG&E requesting a dialogue, and the City Council voted to enter into a fee-sharing agreement with other municipalities to hire a law firm to challenge PG&E.
"Tree and vegetation roots can damage an underground pipeline by impacting the pipeline's protective coating system, exposing it to corrosion," stated Jesus Soto, senior vice president of PG&E's gas operations. The Pipeline Pathways project would remove thousands of trees on private and public properties, including some very well established ones in downtown areas and scenic corridors.
"In Moraga the gas transmission line PG&E has identified runs down St. Mary's Road from the Lafayette border for 1.32 miles, approximately to the Mulberry Tree Preschool parking lot," said Jill Keimach, town manager. She added that it appears the line runs along the Lafayette-Moraga Regional Trail where numerous trees are planted, but PG&E's map is not very precise and the agency told the town it would not give it precise data on the pipeline before July.
Falk and his public works team estimated that there are at least four zones where Lafayette is at risk for losing significant trees to the utility's chainsaws. "The riparian corridor along Mt. Diablo Boulevard near the Lafayette Reservoir; mature street trees along the south side of Mt. Diablo Boulevard between Diablo Foods and Chico's; decorative trees in Lafayette Plaza, the eastern trellis also appears to be at risk; and scores of mature trees along the west side of St. Mary's Road between the Community Center and the Moraga town border," he said.
Janet Keeter, Orinda's city manager, said, "We have requested specific data from PG&E but are not expecting a response before May." On PG&E's pipeline map, it looks like Glorietta Boulevard and the portion of Moraga Way that runs from Glorietta to the Moraga border would be impacted.
While cities are concerned about the safety of their residents and want proper maintenance of the gas lines, they challenge PG&E's right to cut trees with complete disregard for local rules and environmental laws. They believe that there are also other ways to protect the pipelines from tree roots.
"PG&E has been testing the lines with high-pressure water which is more directly related to public safety," said Keimach. "This clearance of vegetation and structures above the pipeline has a number of issues and the benefit to the pipeline safety seems debatable." She added that PG&E has failed to produce evidence that tree roots ever damaged pipelines (roots grow toward water, not gas), and that if they did, there are a number of root barrier systems that could be explored before resolving to cutting down the trees. The Moraga Town Council is not scheduled to discuss the issue at this time.
"Lafayette will refuse to issue encroachment permits to PG&E for tree removal along the pipeline pathway until the cities and PG&E have arrived upon a process for resolving these issues," said Falk. "I have ordered the police chief to direct his police officers who come upon such work to stop utility workers from trimming trees until the matter is reviewed by the city engineer."
Keeter says that the issue has not been discussed by the Orinda City Council yet, but it is likely that the city's position will be to hold PG&E to the same standards as anybody else when it comes to cutting trees. Orinda's municipal code prohibits removal of protected trees without a permit. The application to cut a tree carries a fee and includes mitigation measures such as replacement or moving of the tree.
"Respecting this important partnership (with cities), PG&E will not remove any trees under this program in the East Bay until a shared solution is reached," said Soto. But the agency remains committed to addressing trees and structures over its pipelines that can interfere with safely accessing, inspecting and maintaining the pipelines. PG&E's pipeline map can be found online at www.pge.com/safety/systemworks/gas/transmissionpipelines.

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