PSEG Long Island is poised to begin installing thousands of larger utility poles and hundreds of miles of stronger cable as part of the utility's plan to fortify the local electric grid against devastating storms.

The project, scheduled to start next month, has met resistance from municipal officials concerned about the use of pentachlorophenol, a toxic wood preservative, on the poles.

PSEG's effort to harden the system with a $729 million federal grant focuses on regions that experienced the most damage during superstorm Sandy and seeks to minimize large-scale outages such as the 1 million experienced during that 2012 storm.

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"This will go a long way in helping us better ready the system for whatever will happen in the future," said Nick Lizanich, director of transmission and distribution asset management for PSEG Long Island.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said last week that he told the utility he's concerned over its decision to install new poles coated with pentachlorophenol. The wood preservative, known as penta, is considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be highly toxic to humans but approved for use on utility poles. It has been linked to neurological, blood, liver and kidney effects.

Work on mainlines in Southold will be among the first of 300 separate work projects PSEG plans to tackle.

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"We were looking for a delay so the effects and risks of penta could be more fully explored," Russell said. While he acknowledged Southold probably can't block the project, Russell said he'll offer a town resolution in support of a proposed state law that would ban the substance on utility poles.

More than 1,000 miles of power lines and equipment will be fortified by the work, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Most of the money, about $640 million, will go to strengthening the mainline distribution system -- the major electric lines that provide power from hundreds of electric substations across Long Island to businesses, neighborhoods, hospitals and government. The balance of the spending will go to raise substations, fortify transmission lines and install equipment designed to minimize the effects of outages.

Under a preliminary estimate, PSEG expects to replace up to 4,000 poles with new ones that are 5 feet taller -- at 39 feet -- and 2 inches wider, Lizanich said. The poles will be 54 percent stronger, set a foot deeper in the ground than existing poles and embedded in a stronger subsurface material so they don't lean, Lizanich said.

 

Penta under scrutiny

Use of poles with pentachlorophenol comes as state lawmakers consider a ban on the preservative, and the EPA is reviewing penta, which is widely available and has been used on poles for 40 years. PSEG said the poles won't be used in "environmentally sensitive" areas such as wetlands, relying instead on those treated with chromated copper arsenate.

Said Russell, "I would submit that the entire Southold Town is environmentally sensitive."

Lizanich said PSEG has "been out talking to town supervisors about projects in general, what's coming, to foster the right level of communication so there are no surprises." The utility will comply with all needed permits.

East Hampton Supervisor Larry Cantwell said he hasn't yet been contacted by PSEG about any pending projects in his town. But he said if and when that happens, "I'm going to have serious issues with their using penta poles given that our testing found high levels of penta in the ground surrounding these poles."

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The town also fought considerably larger poles installed in East Hampton last year, so "certainly the additional height is going to cause concern in some residential neighborhoods," Cantwell said.

North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth said the town hasn't met yet on any of the FEMA storm-hardening projects. But, she said, "Since we have no control over what PSEG does, I will continue to insist . . . that they halt the installation of any more penta-laced poles until the EPA concludes its recertification process of this preservative."

PSEG last year sued North Hempstead over a resolution that sought to have utilities put warning labels on poles treated with penta and other toxic preservatives.

 

PSEG plans outreach

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Huntington Town, another initial work site, is raising no objections to the PSEG project, said town spokesman A.J. Carter.

PSEG said it plans to work with communities and municipalities to head off concerns. It noted that the penta on poles is "registered for use by the EPA."

Lizanich said the company "learned our lesson" from protests in East Hampton and Port Washington, where residents objected to big-pole projects, and will communicate early with residents and officials in affected municipalities.

"Outreach is a very big part of it for us," he said. "Meetings have already taken place, letters already sent out, elected officials [contacted]." He also said call centers are equipped with extra information to answer customer questions about the work.

One primary aim of the work is to remove mainline distribution wires from backyards, Lizanich said, a big problem when workers are attempting to restore power during storms. As part of the project, new equipment called "sectionalizers" that allow the utility to more easily isolate outages, in some cases reducing the number of impacted customers by half, will be installed. PSEG plans to double the current number of sectionalizers, to 2,600.

The project will require "a significant contracting presence" of "hundreds of contractors" to complete the work over the next three years, Lizanich said. The company will initially use PSEG crews to start the work.

Ultimately, most of the work will be given to outside crews.