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Amid controversy, LIPA weighs new underground power line policy

The LIPA board is eyeing a policy to bring more visibility to planning for power line projects while allowing communities to pay the costs burying overhead cables.

The move comes as the Department of Public Service on Friday, responding to state lawmaker complaints, essentially cleared PSEG Long Island of charges that it skirted state rules for notifying customers of a giant steel-pole project in Eastport.

The rules “would not have required” PSEG to do more than the meetings with officials, letters to affected customers and website notification it provided, DPS said.

The DPS letter said burying the entire 7.2-mile Riverhead-to-Eastport line would cost $70 million to $100 million. PSEG previously had estimated the cost at $42 million to $63 million.

State Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said however it happens “LIPA has to be more aggressive in making sure (PSEG) is providing more transparency to ratepayers” through better notice of such projects. In the Eastport case, he said, “the court will make a decision on whether there was proper transparency.”

A PSEG spokesman declined to comment.

LIPA trustees have been mulling the new underground construction policy for weeks, and expect to vote on it at the next board meeting Sept. 27.

Under the plan, PSEG would prepare and release a detailed analysis of select power line projects well in advance of construction.

The analysis would include specific information on why the utility chose to go overhead or underground based on industry, state and LIPA construction standards, and include the relative costs. If overhead is chosen, the utility and DPS would reach out to affected communities before construction begins.

PSEG would then offer the communities a “local underground construction financing program” that would allow ratepayers to finance burying the lines “at their expense” if a project “does not meet the fair, statewide criteria for undergrounding.” Burying power lines can cost $4 million to $7 million a mile, in some cases double the cost of overhead lines.

“Decisions on overhead versus underground should be based on science to the extent that it’s possible,” said LIPA’s deputy chairman and board member Tom McAteer.

The policy would eliminate the suspicion that any one constituency is being favored, he said, adding: “I have a fiduciary responsibility to all the ratepayers.”

Asked whether the policy would inherently favor wealthier communities who had the wherewithal to pay for such projects over those who don’t, McAteer said, “It’s a fair question, but it’s not the LIPA board’s to answer. I think that lies more with the state.”

Consideration of the policy comes amid protests against PSEG after it installed 175 steel poles up to 110 feet high along a bucolic stretch of County Road 51 between Riverhead and Eastport. Brookhaven Town has sued in objection to the environmental analysis and approval process, and Southampton has filed to join the suit.

State lawmakers and Brookhaven have filed complaints with DPS which has “review and recommend” oversight of the authority and PSEG, claiming the utility didn’t follow new agency guidelines for providing notice, considering aesthetics and soliciting input before beginning such projects.

McAteer said the new policy will prevent such problems. “There has to be a reasonable amount of time for people to know what the plans are,” he said. “That should be part of the process.”

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