Felling on hold

Protesters stall PG&E’s tree-chopping plans at Oroville Cemetery

These trees outside the Oroville Cemetery will be cut down if PG&E gets its way.

These trees outside the Oroville Cemetery will be cut down if PG&E gets its way.

Photo by ken smith

More than 200 trees already have been chopped by Pacific Gas & Electric in Oroville, as part of a project to protect the gas pipeline there, but local tree advocates are pushing back when it comes to the final 13. And they’re arguing that the reason for all the cutting is bunk, that the trees present no actual harm to the pipeline.

Butte County Superior Court Judge Steve Benson said on Monday (Jan. 12) that he needs more time before ruling on two matters related to the standoff between the tree advocates and PG&E, which plans to remove 13 century-old trees, mostly sycamores, growing next to the Oroville Cemetery.

Attorney Richard Harriman, representing Save Oroville Trees (SOT), asked Benson to overrule a Dec. 30 temporary restraining order to keep protesters away from the trees, allowing PG&E to move forward with its plans. He also asked the judge to halt the tree removal itself until environmental impact reports could be conducted. The next court hearing on the matter is scheduled for Jan. 21.

On Tuesday (Jan. 13), the morning after Benson said he needed more time, PG&E crews moved in to start cutting down the trees but were met by the SOT protesters and work stalled.

Shaun Maccoun, spokesman for PG&E, said the company is currently in wait-and-see mode.

“We will evaluate our options that will allow us to move forward in a manner that is safe for both the work crews and the public,” he said Tuesday. “We attempted to start work again this morning but pulled off to ensure the physical safety of the crews and the citizens who were there.”

The tree removal is part of PG&E’s $500 million Pipeline Pathways project, which is a statewide effort “to clear obstructions from the utility company’s 6,750 miles of underground gas lines.”

The cemetery trees are the last remaining of the 242 trees that were slated for removal in Oroville. There are also plans to take down trees in Chico and Paradise in the near future.

The company says it needs “to remove the trees, shrubs and structures on private and public property to ensure pipeline safety—a top priority after the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.”

But critics of the project say that is a scare tactic because, according to a federal investigation, the San Bruno explosion was caused not by trees but rather by faulty welds along the pipe.

The tree defenders are made up of a cross-section of the community, including a very active group of older citizens. They say the city of Oroville, which received $34,000 from PG&E for allowing the removal, failed to publicly announce the project and require tree removal permits. The city also failed to consider the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires environmental impact reports for projects that may affect the environment. District Attorney Mike Ramsey reminded the city about CEQA in November, but by that time the tree removal was well underway.

In court on Monday, depositions handed to Judge Benson included one from former Chico Urban Forester Denise Britton, who said the tree roots do not threaten the pipeline, and Jack Kiley, a retired PG&E manager, who said in his 34 years with the company he never heard of a tree root rupturing a gas pipeline.

The Oroville Police Department has not enforced the restraining order, which requires citizens to stay at least 30 feet away from where the trees stand. Oroville City Attorney Scott Huber said that given the stress on the police force because of limited numbers of officers and budget cuts, the police were not going to enforce the restraining order unless ordered to do so.

PG&E’s attorney Bill Speir then asked Benson to make the order, which the judge refused to do.

“Let’s all just step back,” Benson said. “Courts don’t give orders to police departments.”

After the hearing, Harriman, SOT’s attorney, said the city doesn’t want to arrest large numbers of people and run the risk of civil rights violations.

“It’s not just about the trees,” he said. “The City Council members act as a public trustee, but they violated the public trust by allowing this to happen without proper review. There were no public notices.”

He accused PG&E of using scare tactics by referring to the San Bruno incident as a reason to remove trees.

“You come away with the impression that the pipeline was at severe potential risk,” he said. “PG&E talked about what happened in San Bruno with the message ‘Unless you let us cut down these trees something awful will happen.’”

He said PG&E met “severe resistance from East Bay cities, so they come here to roll over Oroville to set a precedent, make an example. Their message is: PG&E is coming to help you by harvesting your trees.”

Last March, mayors from cities and towns around the East Bay spoke out against PG&E’s plans to take down a total of 1,729 trees as part of the Pipeline Pathways project by signing a letter to the company.

The letter began: “Because we are entrusted with protecting our respective communities’ values, we, the undersigned mayors and elected officials of Alameda and Contra Costa counties, request a meeting with you immediately to discuss your company’s Pipeline Pathways project.”

It was signed by the mayors of Concord, Walnut Creek, Clayton, Martinez, Danville, El Cerrito, Pleasanton and Lafayette.

According to a story in the San Jose Mercury News published last April, the Concord City Council passed a resolution to halt all PG&E tree removals until certain conditions could be met. The story said the city’s arborist was inspecting city-owned trees to determine whether they were likely to damage the gas lines.

“If the roots are not going to extend to a location near the pipeline, it’s difficult for PG&E to suggest that particular tree poses any risk,” City Attorney Mark Coon said.

“What we have is a frontal assault on our local jurisdiction being carried out by PG&E,” said Harriman. “They started in the East Bay, have come to Oroville, and Chico and Paradise are next.”

The PG&E project includes felling trees on the south side of Chico along the Midway—where the pipeline runs from the Oroville-Chico Highway north to Hegan Lane. There is also a pipeline leading into Paradise along Neal Road, where trees are slated for removal.

This week PG&E announced a program whereby, though a partnership with The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, it would plant a tree in the Los Padres National Forest for every customer who enrolls in the company’s paperless billing program. The press release announcing the plan included the phrase: “Every tree matters.”