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PSEG, LIPA sue North Hempstead over pole warning signs

PSEG Long Island and LIPA on Thursday filed

PSEG Long Island and LIPA on Thursday filed suit against the Town of North Hempstead seeking to block a 2014 ordinance requiring utilities to post warning signs on utility poles treated with hazardous chemicals. Credit: Heather Walsh

PSEG Long Island and LIPA on Thursday filed suit against the Town of North Hempstead seeking to block a 2014 ordinance requiring utilities to post warning signs on utility poles treated with hazardous chemicals.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, argues that the law violates utilities' free-speech rights by forcing them to post warning signs containing "disputed phrases and accompanying text urging the public to take action."

The suit describes the burden of affixing the signs to the poles as "unworkable," the utilities would have to coordinate with Verizon, which also owns many poles. It also says the possible adoption of similar laws by other municipalities puts utilities in the "untenable position" of having to affix differently worded signs depending on the poles' location.

The North Hempstead ordinance, which took effect in September, requires that utilities post 4-by-7-inch signs on poles treated with preservatives such as the suspected carcinogen pentachlorophenol, or penta, warning residents to "avoid prolonged contact" and to "wash hands or other exposed areas if contact is made."

LIPA, which filed suit under its corporate name, the Long Island Lighting Co., and PSEG charge they are "irreparably harmed both by being forced to carry the town's message against their will and by being prevented from carrying messages of their own choosing."

In response, North Hempstead Town attorney Elizabeth Botwin said, "We are confident that it is legal to require PSEG to warn town residents about the hazards of touching penta-treated poles when they put the exact same warning on their website."

The suit takes issue with the mandated use of the term "hazardous chemical," calling it "vague and provocative," and adding that there is a "complete lack of any evidence in the legislative record of any risk of actual harm from minimal contact" with poles.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says short-term ingestion and inhalation of penta is "extremely toxic to humans." Inhaling the chemical for even for short periods has resulted in neurological, blood, and liver effects, according to the EPA. Long-term inhalation can affect the respiratory tract, blood, kidney, liver, immune system, eyes, nose, and skin, the EPA says.

The lawsuit is the latest salvo in a dispute between the New Jersey-based PSEG and two Long Island towns whose residents opposed installation of large new poles treated with penta to support high-voltage lines.

Residents of East Hampton, some of whom have filed suit to have the poles removed, also have objected to the use of penta on poles, although the town doesn't require warning signs. North Hempstead and East Hampton have called on PSEG to take down the poles and bury the lines. The utility has said it would do so if communities paid the costs, which could amount to tens of millions of dollars.

With Scott Eidler

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