By Louise Witt
Trees on private property must be maintained to protect the power grid, Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty told the state Board of Public Utilities on Thursday, at a public meeting investigating widespread power outages from last month’s storms.
Dougherty said it is important for Jersey Central Power & Light to continue to trim and remove trees in public right-of-ways.
However, he said, with more severe and more frequent storms from climate change, trees near power lines on private properties also need maintenance.
Dougherty wants to work with the BPU, Gov. Phil Murphy, state legislators, power companies and other municipalities to address the risks posed by private trees.
“We all love trees,” Dougherty told BPU President Joseph L. Fiordalsio and Commissioner Mary-Anna Holden, who were presiding over the meeting at the Parsippany-Troy Hills’ Municipal Building.
“How do we approach it in a positive way and make the public want to be part of the solution of keeping our power grid up and running?”
Mayor Tim Dougherty addresses state BPU. Video by Louise Witt:
Tree maintenance, known as vegetation management, was a concern of many area mayors and citizens who spoke at the meeting. Dougherty was the only mayor calling for a statewide plan to maintain trees near power lines on public and private properties.
Many of the trees that fell or were damaged during the storms in Morristown, he said, either already were dead or were older and “hollowed out,” in residents’ backyards near power lines.
During the two nor’easters last month, 2,600 residents lost power in Morristown, many for several days. Dougherty said this would become more of an issue as climate change creates more severe storms, such as Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and devastating summer thunderstorms with high-wind micro bursts.
“It’s a constant change of the weather and the climate, not just in the Northeast, but everywhere, if anyone is paying attention,” said Dougherty, who came to the meeting from his job at the Prudential Center in Newark. “It’s changing. It’s been changing for years. And people have to start recognizing that.”
After a pair of nor’easters hit the state last month, Gov. Murphy ordered the BPU to hold five public meetings to assess and investigate the utilities’ response to the damage. The area’s main electricity provider, JCP&L, which serves 1.1 million customers in New Jersey, reported more than half a million customers lost power.
Fiordaliso said part of BPU’s investigation is to find out if power utilities followed more than 100 protocols issued after Hurricane Sandy. “If they were not,” he said, “they will be held accountable.”
The BPU held its first public meeting in Byram Township last week. The next one is in Mahwah on Monday, April 16, 2018. Another is scheduled for Winslow Township on April 23. The last meeting will be May 4 in Sergeantsville.
Executives and officials from JCP&L, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp., based in Akron, Ohio, attended the first two meetings and will attend the last one.
Area mayors acknowledged the hard work of JCP&L crews during the storms, but told the BPU more needs to be done to prevent prolonged, widespread outages.
They said JCP&L could replace old wooden utility poles with metal ones, provide more field supervisors to oversee out-of-state crews, install “smart meters” to better monitor service, coordinate better with telecommunication providers and improve vegetation management.
“I thank JCP&L leadership and their people for helping us,” said Parsippany Mayor Michael Soriano. “However, their board of directors and their stockholders have made virtually no progress on upgrading the power infrastructure or building resources for major disasters since Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. This lack of vision and planning have put us all in jeopardy.”
Soriano said 1,000 Parsippany residents lost power, some for as long as nine days.
“Another storm, or larger one, will come,” he said. “That’s a fact of life. We have to be more prepared. We thought that had happened after Sandy. We must not let this happen again.”
BPU President Joseph Fiordaliso discusses March 2018 storms. Video by Louise Witt:
Robert H. Conley, mayor of Madison Borough, which owns its power company, would like to see better coordination of work crews.
Madison had few outages – 250 — and was able to help to Chatham Borough, Chatham Township, Township of Morris and Berkeley Heights.
“Unfortunately, what should have been an easy process became a challenge,” Conley said, noting that Madison had to wait 48 hours before getting JCP&L’s blessing to lend a hand. “Hopefully, this process will be seamless in the future.”
Chatham Borough Council Member Thaddeus Kobylarz criticized JCP&L for not having crews in place and ready to make repairs, despite severe weather warnings.
After the storms, Kobylarz said, 60 percent of Chatham suffered outages, but crews were stationed in nearby towns with far fewer outages. “They couldn’t cross the border to assist us,” he said.
Chatham Township Mayor Bruce Harris said JCP&L should install “smart meters” to better monitor power service. “JCP&L would know when repairs had restored power and to whom,” Harris said. “And they would now if further work was needed.”
Harris said Chatham Township residents don’t want to lose their trees, but he acknowledged underground wires may be too costly, citing estimates between $1million and $2 million a mile.
“But we love trees in Chatham, so we have to come to a balance,” Harris said. “It has been suggested, in lieu of putting wires underground, we look at some sort of a program to fund generators for people who really don’t want to lose their trees and don’t want to lose their power.”
Jim Tasker, of Jefferson Township, said many more trees need to be cut down to protect power lines. After Hurricane Sandy, he said he started a “tree removal program” on his property.
“I love trees, too,” he said. “It’s costing a lot of money to remove my trees, but, at least, I can burn the wood when they come down… we have to do something about removing these trees.”
Tasker, who also was upset at JCP&L’s outreach after the storm, said he expects the utility will ask the BPU for higher rates.
“I’m going to serve as a prophet now,” he said. “One year from today, or less, I’m going to hear JCP&L go for a rate increase to cover costs of this storm from the ratepayers.”
Fiordaliso told the audience the BPU has been searching for a reasonable solution to vegetation management.
“You’re right, people love their trees,” he said. “However, we also need energy flowing into our homes. And in some cases, something needs to be sacrificed. We are going to be looking into that.”
Madison, which owns its power company, didn’t have as many fallen or damaged tress or suffer as many power outages as neighboring towns.
“As I often remind our residents,” Conley said, “it’s the work done on sunny days that makes the stormy days so much easier.”
Dougherty, who supported establishing the Morristown Shade Tree Commission, said a redevelopment meeting was cancelled Thursday to accommodate the BPU hearing. A council meeting will be scheduled to look at storm preparedness and tree management, he said.
“Scary part of this is that it is becoming the norm,” he said. “These types of storms are going to come one after another.”