A motorist was killed north of Eastport on Dec. 11,...

A motorist was killed north of Eastport on Dec. 11, 2017, when the SUV he was driving hit one of the utility poles that area residents have said are set too close to the road. Credit: Stringer News Service

PSEG Long Island, saying it faces potential litigation, is investigating a fatal accident at one of the large steel poles it erected as part of a controversial high-voltage transmission line project from Riverhead to Eastport, company officials said.

It’s the first pole strike since PSEG installed the structures in the spring. LIPA says utility poles are struck by vehicles about 1,000 times a year, with a half dozen or so serious crashes. The vast majority of roadside poles are wooden and tend to snap when struck. Statistics weren’t available about fatalities related to drivers hitting utility poles.

On Dec. 11, a car driven by Matthew Hillebrand, 47, of Babylon burst into flames shortly after he hit one of the larger new PSEG steel poles on County Road 51, at the intersection of County Road 111 north of Eastport. The pole was dented and burned. Hillebrand was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital, where he later died, Suffolk police reported.

Daniel Eichhorn, president of PSEG Long Island, said during a LIPA trustee meeting Dec. 19 that the crash into the new pole, which like the rest of the 175 poles is set in a concrete foundation, is “something we are looking into and investigating.”

Eichhorn, who called the crash a “tragedy,” said the utility “expects some type of litigation or legal action around that, so there’s not much we would want to comment at this time.”

Trustee Matthew Cordaro noted that use of steel transmission poles, which carry higher voltages than distribution poles, is rare on public roadways.

“Most of the steel poles that I’m aware of that we have are on rights of way, so you don’t have this situation,” Cordaro said, referring to stretches of land off roadways.

He recommended PSEG consider additional safeguards around the steel poles, which are positioned along 5 miles of roadway, about 3 feet from the shoulder. Other new poles are on a right of way through woodlands to get wires to a Riverhead substation.

“I think at the least, if we are going to continue with this, there should be concrete barriers or something set up where a pole like that comes close to the road, so if there is an accident at least someone’s not going to hit the pole head on,” Cordaro said.

LIPA chief executive Tom Falcone urged Cordaro to hold his comments for a closed-door executive session meeting of the board later in the day.

“I’m always shocked to discover the number of vehicular hits we have with poles in a year, it’s about a thousand a year,” Falcone added. About a dozen of those are “serious accidents,” he said, without indicating whether any others involved fatalities.

In 2017, 756 poles were struck in Suffolk and 296 hit in Nassau, PSEG spokesman Jeffrey Weir said. In 2016, the number was 792 in Suffolk, 260 in Nassau. Both 2017 figures are up from 2015, when 683 poles were struck in Suffolk and 285 in Nassau. In 2014, 678 were struck in Suffolk, 245 in Nassau, Weir said. He declined to comment on the fatal crash into the new pole.

Only one other area of Long Island has steel poles on a roadside, PSEG officials have said.

The steel poles in Eastport have been the subject of resident protests and a lawsuit by Brookhaven Town, which alleged LIPA and PSEG didn’t go through the proper reviews before installing the 175 poles. Residents have complained that the poles are unsightly and a road hazard.

PSEG had been negotiating a possible settlement over the poles that involved placing the power lines underground between Sunrise Highway and Montauk Highway in the hamlet of Eastport, but little has been released about the offer in months.

Latest videos