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PSC report backs cost estimates for burying electric lines

Workers plant a new utility pole at the

Workers plant a new utility pole at the intersection of Gingerbread and Toilsome lanes in East Hampton on Feb. 20, 2014. Credit: Brad Penner

Two towns hosting newly installed PSEG Long Island cable projects drew little comfort this week from a state regulator's report verifying the millions of dollars it would cost to bury the controversial lines.

In letters to North Hempstead and East Hampton town supervisors, state Public Service Commission chairwoman Audrey Zibelman concurred with a PSEG estimate that burying the cables would cost $4 million per mile along a 6-mile stretch in East Hampton and $5.5 million per mile for a 5-mile section in North Hempstead.

But Zibelman said PSEG simply providing those cost estimates didn't go far enough, stating that PSEG "must work with each municipality to identify the total distance to be undergrounded and based on that information PSEG-LI must develop an accurate cost for the project," she wrote.

Asked under what authority Zibelman used the word "must," PSC spokesman James Denn said, "In this instance, 'must' means, 'necessary to achieve the objective.' It is not meant to be a directive to PSEG-LI."

Zibelman also wrote that she saw "no reason to deviate" from the way the Long Island Power Authority worked with Southampton Town several years ago to bury a portion of cable there, with the "incremental costs" paid for by the customers who benefited.

East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said that because the PSC did not find that PSEG should cover more of the cost to bury the line, affected customers would likely balk at the burden of paying the $25 million to $30 million tab.

"The report for all practical purposes supports overhead transmission lines for all of Long Island," he said. "The residents and homeowners directly impacted cannot possibly bear the financial burden" of covering the entire cost.

More than a dozen East Hampton residents have sued PSEG, charging the project has lowered home values and presents health hazards. The town issued a stop-work order at the Amagansett substation where the cable ends, stalling work that is otherwise complete. A state Supreme Court judge is expected to rule on a PSEG challenge to the order soon. The 6-mile line on poles up to 65 feet high runs through village neighborhoods, shopping areas and wooded back roads.

In North Hempstead, where the recently electrified cable is on poles up to 85 feet high, Supervisor Judi Bosworth said the report and Zibelman's letter "contained no surprises regarding the cost of undergrounding the utility wires and what the ratepayers' and town's role would be to make that happen."

Nevertheless, she said in a statement, she was "gratified" the Department of Public Service will be working with PSEG "to ensure that it takes a more thoughtful approach to aesthetics and provides advance notice to the public on future projects, as well as a meaningful opportunity for ratepayers to have their say."

PSEG Long Island spokesman Jeff Weir said the company was reviewing the letters and report and "we need more time to do that."

But he said it appeared the PSC report "doesn't go against what we have said all along: that we'll be happy to underground the transmission lines as long as the towns understand it's not going to be at the expense of the Long Island ratepayers."The report notes that underground wires cost less in preventative maintenance and fare better in storms. But when they do break down, it costs more to repair them than overhead lines, and it's harder to locate problems on buried lines. Underground lines also have a shorter life -- 40 years compared with 50-plus years for overhead lines, the report says.

The report notes it would cost about $2.5 million to remove the already installed poles in East Hampton should a decision be made to put the line underground. It would cost about $500,000 to cut the larger poles to the shorter lengths of previous poles. Costs to remove the North Hempstead poles weren't available.

The department addressed concerns about a chemical known as pentachlorophenol on the new utility poles, noting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency "permits its use to treat utility poles." The EPA, she noted, has found that "its use in approved applications would not pose an unreasonable risk to humans or the environment."

Cantwell said the state's findings have implications beyond the affected towns.

"The end result here is that as transmission lines get upgraded throughout Long Island, they're going to be overhead, and every community that's faced with this is going to struggle with the ability to pay for that," Cantwell said.

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