PG&E Plan to Clear Hundreds of Trees for Pipeline Project Sparks Controversy

Trees along the Lafayette-Moraga Trail. Some of these trees would be removed under a pending PG&E plan. (Save Lafayette Trees)

A Sept. 10 special meeting organized by the Lafayette City council that would discuss a controversial plan by PG&E to uproot hundreds of trees, has drawn ire from residents who want the trees to remain.

The pending tree removal is part of the utility company's Community Pipeline Safety Initiative, a statewide effort aimed at improving public safety by clearing structures that could stand in the way of first responders attempting to access gas transmission lines.

Tree roots also corrode the underground pipelines, which can lead to hazardous leaks, according to PG&E.

The trees that are scheduled for removal include 207 on public property and 245 in Briones Regional Park.

Critics of the plan say that removing hundreds of trees threatens local wildlife and significantly impairs the character of the neighborhood.  They say the city should have conducted an environmental assessment before authorizing the plan in 2017. 

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Michael Dawson, co-founder of grassroots group Save Lafayette Trees, says concerned residents want an open dialogue. He describes the September 10 meeting as "unbalanced."

"PG&E is given an unrestricted time to present, and then residents are restricted to 3-minute comments before PG&E delivers its final rebuttal," says Dawson. "We're not sure what this will achieve."

Specifically, the group wants PG&E to release the tree clearing agreement it drafted with the city in 2017. They also want the city to appoint a citizen advisory committee to address safety needs in Lafayette.

"We simply want to sit down with PG&E and talk about the safety needs in our community without the distraction of the tree cutting," says Dawson.

PG&E has already cleared trees in more than 26 communities throughout Contra Costa county. Lafayette is the last city in the county to carry out the tree removal.

PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith says the company continues to work with the city "to determine the timing for this important gas safety work."

Next week's meeting will include representatives from PG&E, the California Public Utilities Commission, and Save Lafayette Trees.

'Red Herring'

When the city authorized PG&E's plan last year, 300 residents signed a petition opposing the tree removal, according to Dawson.

The petition led to the formation of Save Lafayette Trees, which sued the city for approving the plan. The lawsuit, pending on appeal, accuses the city of not evaluating the environmental impacts of clearing hundreds of trees.

"They didn't do the required environmental analysis and they failed to give us notification before they approved the plan," says Dawson.

Dawson accuses PG&E of engaging in divide and conquer tactics.

"They make individual agreements with local counties in a very non-transparent process," he says. "We can't even get them to give us a full number on how many trees they've cut so far. They also won't provide us with a list of the trees they want to cut down in Briones Park."

But PG&E spokesperson Smith says since 2017,  the company has conducted a variety of outreach efforts "to share information, answer questions and receive feedback from the community."

This includes informational booths, door-to-door outreach, and an open house where residents engaged directly with PG&E experts, according to Smith.

"Through these efforts, we interacted with over 200 local residents and provided hundreds of written responses," he says. "We want our customers to be fully informed about our safety work, and we appreciate the opportunity to address questions and concerns at the September 10 meeting."

An exposed pipeline, which some residents say is a much bigger safety risk than the trees. According to Save Lafayette Trees co-founder Michael Dawson, PG&E still hasn't covered up the exposed pipeline even though it was reported to the company 10 years ago. (Save Lafayette Trees)

A Lack of Data

The Pipeline Safety Initiative was launched following the 2010 PG&E pipeline explosion in San Bruno, which killed eight people. PG&E was hit with $1.6 billion in fines and criminal charges.

Shortly after the incident, PG&E undertook a $3-billion statewide upgrade to its 6,750-mile gas pipeline system. Part of that money went toward gas transmission safety improvements, which led to the Pipeline Safety Initiative.

The program targets trees and structures that are located near PG&E'S  pipeline system.

But a number of cities and counties have mounted serious challenges to the utility giant's tree cutting plan.

In Lafayette, Dawson's group maintains that tree-clearing is not a top public safety concern.

"The  justifications offered by the company are demonstrably false," says Dawson. "I think they are quick to use the label of 'public safety' to quell any unhappiness by locals. But the plan is a waste of resources and it distracts from actual safety concerns with these pipelines."

Dawson says no strong data exists to support the idea that cutting trees increases public safety. There has been no underground pipeline accident caused by trees anywhere in the U.S. in the last 20 years.

He also points to a 2014 study commissioned by PG&E that found no correlation between live tree growths and corrosion.

Further, an unnamed federal official that Dawson's group reached out to debunked a claim made by PG&E president Nick Stravropoulos during the company's annual shareholder's meeting in May.

Stravropoulos had said that the Department of Transportation had identified tree clearing as the "number one safety issue" for transmission pipelines surrounded by "incompatible vegetation and structures."

But a DOT official, whose name has been withheld by Dawson's group, refuted this claim in an email shown to KQED:  "I do not know of anyone in the DOT who agrees with Nick’s statement ... This does not accurately describe the number one safety issue for U.S. gas transmission pipelines."

The official went on to cite "equipment failure" as a top concern for the DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Dawson's group says the company's real motives for prioritizing tree clearing is to make it easier to survey their pipeline system via helicopter.

"It's apparent that PG&E wants trees removed for the convenience of aerial surveying," says the group's website. "This is NOT sufficient rationale for why a large project with a devastating impact should be imposed upon a community without public input."

Last month, PG&E issued a lengthy response to questions that residents had submitted to the city. But Dawson says unanswered questions remain regarding PG&E's safety priorities.

"There are huge gaps in safety that aren't being addressed," he says.

Those safety needs, according to Dawson, include pipeline inspections, additional shut-off valves, and replacing aging pipeline infrastructure.

"We need more valves installed and aging pipelines need to be pressure tested," says Dawson. "Firefighters we've spoken to say they're more concerned with entering an area with the gas shut off, which requires functioning valves, not tree clearing."

But Jeff Heyman,  a spokesperson for the city of Lafayette, sees next week's meeting differently.

"There are a lot of safety issues on the table for this meeting," says Heyman. "We're facilitating this meeting to allow residents to ask questions and receive answers from PG&E."

He accuses Dawson's group of being singularly focused on the tree clearing.

"It's not true that the meeting will only consist of PG&E doing a presentation," he says.

The September 10 meeting is scheduled for 4-7pm at the Lafayette Library and Learning Center.

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Note: This story has been updated to include comments from PG&E.

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