OAKLAND — Central Maine Power’s use of herbicides near a popular walking trail in Oakland has some residents upset, but the company says killing the vegetation around its transmission lines helps keep the power on for Maine’s homes and businesses.
In recent years, the power company has been more aggressive in attacking vegetation that threatens its lines, pruning and chemically treating the growth every five years instead of less frequently.
On July 3, a contractor working for the power company sprayed herbicide beneath a stretch of power lines that coincides with the Messalonskee Stream Trail, which runs along the stream. The spraying generated complaints at the town office from residents who were unsettled by the sight of a large tract of dying vegetation.
Oakland resident Emily Shaw, who frequently uses the trail, said she didn’t know the work was happening until she saw a worker from the company’s contractor, Lucas Tree Experts, enter the area on an ATV loaded with tanks of liquid.
Shaw, who also teaches political science at Thomas College, said she was concerned because she uses the trail with her child and dog, and because she could see the herbicide entering the stream.
“That entire area went from being summery and green to large swaths of it being killed off, being ugly and brown,” Shaw said.
Shaw said she isn’t opposed to maintenance, but she would have preferred a chance to trim the vegetation herself with hedge clippers to avoid the chemical treatment.
“To me, the big issue is that I didn’t know it was happening,” Shaw said.
Notifying the public optional
The power company and the town disagree on how much notice was given before the spraying.
But under Maine law, the company isn’t required to give any notice at all, according to John Bott, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which oversees the Maine Board of Pesticides Control.
Neither the power company nor the division of Lucas Tree Experts that performs the work have any issues pending or on file with the board, Bott said.
“There is no public notification requirement on a public way,” Bott said. “There is for lawns, and outdoor structures, and ornamental plants, and aerial spraying.”
Gail Rice, a spokeswoman for Central Maine Power, said the company voluntarily notifies people to address potential concerns about herbicides and losing shade trees near their homes.
One way the company gets the word out is by sending annual mailings to each town, city and county in its service area, regardless of whether work is planned. Towns are given posters describing the program for display in the town office.
“Whenever we are going to do work in a municipality, we give that town notice,” she said.
Oakland Town Manager Peter Nielsen said he didn’t get a notification of the work being done alongside the walking trail this year.
“I don’t think there was a letter sent,” Nielsen said. “I try to keep them, and I just checked in my folder.”
Rice suggested that if Oakland didn’t receive the letter, it could have been a problem with the postal delivery.
The power company’s customers are also told about the program through annual notices in bill inserts, and through monthly bill messages, which mention the herbicides.
Advertisements in local newspapers do not generally mention herbicides. For instance, a May 29 ad in the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal says tree pruning will happen in 2013 — with no mention of herbicide use — and says the pruning will occur in Gardiner, Pittston, Dresden, Richmond, Whitefield, Chelsea, Randolph, Readfield, Fayette, Mount Vernon, Chesterville, Vienna, Belgrade, Oakland, Mercer, New Sharon, Pittsfield and Rome.
Rice cited the ad as part of the public notification effort related to the company’s vegetation work.
Shaw, the Oakland resident concerned about the spraying, said the message may still not be heard, because the blanket notifications not tied to specific actions create a desensitizing effect.
“You have so much noise, the signal is lost,” she said.
A giant on tiptoes
Central Maine Power’s vegetation management program is a large-scale enterprise, a $25 million effort covering 2,400 miles of transmission line corridors throughout Maine, enough to extend from Augusta all the way to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Rice said every effort is made to improve customer service while being environmentally sensitive.
“We don’t do it aerially, we do it from the ground,” Rice said of herbicide use. “We take care to spray only the vegetation that we need to.”
Every year, the company targets growth within 25 feet of about 20 percent of its lines. Rice said the five-year cycle was begun just five years ago, replacing a less aggressive approach of managing the vegetation every seven or eight years.
With fewer tree branches growing close to power lines, Rice said, there are fewer outages during storms — since 2008, the number of tree-caused outages has gone down by 34 percent because of the program, according to company estimates.
“It’s important,” Rice said. “You think of someone who relies on electricity to keep their medical equipment running or businesses that rely on it to keep their machines humming.”
Rice said the spray is 95 percent water, and includes a mixture of three herbicide products sold under the brand names Rodeo, Arsenal and Milestone. Arsenal is marketed by BASF, a North Carolina-based chemical company, as a low-volume herbicide that is gentle on wildlife habitats, but effective against a wide variety of grasses, flowers and trees. Rodeo and Milestone, both sold by chemical company DowAgroSciences, are effective against a variety of grass, weeds and brush.
Rice said contractors must meet strict qualifications, including getting a license from the state, posting notices of their work and following all state and federal laws. They are also closely overseen by the company’s licensed arborists, she said.
Rice acknowledged public concerns about pruning or herbicide use, particularly in highly visible areas. She said when the company began a similar five-year cycle of trimming trees in roadside areas, “there was a significant impact on visuals” that also drew concerns.
But over time, she said, the company has received positive feedback from customers who are happy about the increased reliability of their power.
Landowners who abut the power company’s transmission line corridors can prevent herbicide spraying near their land if they are willing to sign a landowner maintenance agreement and take managing the vegetation themselves. Customers are regularly reminded of the opt out program in their billing statements.
She said the power company is willing to explore the idea of groups like Kennebec Messalonskee Trails, which maintains the Messalonskee Stream Trail, taking over maintenance of areas like the one in Oakland, but only if the group owns the land. In some areas, the power company itself has an easement allowing it to run the lines over the land and someone else owns it, which, Rice said, does not allow the company to enter into such an agreement.
Rice said property tax maps in Oakland show CMP owns most, but not all, of the power lines that run along the stream.
Peter Garrett, president of the trails group, said its members have never talked about taking over the responsibility of keeping the vegetation away from the power lines. With the issue now raised, he said, it would consider the idea, possibly removing the need for future herbicide use.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287