For love of trees

Protesters continue fight against PG&E cutting in Oroville

Dozens of tree lovers gather at the Oroville Cemetery Monday (Jan. 26) to try and thwart PG&E’s efforts to cut down 13 century-old trees there.

Dozens of tree lovers gather at the Oroville Cemetery Monday (Jan. 26) to try and thwart PG&E’s efforts to cut down 13 century-old trees there.

Photo courtesy of SOT Facebook

Stephanie Tousley was among the 50-plus activists who turned out pre-dawn Monday morning (Jan. 26) and set up camp underneath the giant sycamores and elms that line the Oroville Cemetery.

“I just love trees,” said Tousley, a steering committee member of Save Oroville Trees, a group that formed in response to plans by Pacific Gas & Electric to fell 242 trees in Oroville that grow above its natural gas pipeline. “I sort of feel responsible,” Tousley admitted. “I was there the night the City Council voted on this. I looked up where the trees were and I thought they were way far away, not this close to the city. I should have spoken up.”

As Tousley spoke, PG&E crews dropped branches on the other side of a barricade. Despite her and others’ efforts to hold them off, they were able to cordon off four of the 13 trees that remained Monday morning.

One protester, Alan Cartwright, jumped the fence as the crews were working. He paced among the four giant 127-year-old trees, trying to halt the cutting, until Oroville police arrived to escort him off the premises. He was arrested, then released on-site.

“We’re not going to pursue any complaints against him,” said Oroville Police Chief Bill LaGrone. “He’s a passionate supporter, and we respect that.”

Sara Harris was also among the tree lovers early that morning. She was the only one left on the sidewalk on the north end of the Oroville Cemetery, on Feather River Boulevard. Many of the protesters, who arrived before the sun had risen, left for work satisfied that they’d kept PG&E at bay for one more day. As soon as the crowd dissipated, Tousley said, the crews moved in.

“I got escorted off the sidewalk,” Harris recounted, barely taking her eyes off the men with chainsaws. “Two men in black came and said, ‘You need to leave. This is a work area.’ I’m disabled, and I said I needed to let my legs rest and that ‘this technically isn’t a work area until I leave.’ But they herded me off—they were intimidating.”

Monday’s cutting was a particularly painful blow, given that Save Oroville Trees had a court date just two days later, Wednesday morning, where Butte County Superior Court Judge Steve Benson weighed in on their petition to halt the cutting until environmental impact reports could be conducted.

“Of course they had to cut the trees before the court date,” said SOT member Linda Draper.

Ultimately, Benson denied SOT’s request, instead upholding PG&E’s injunction to keep protesters away from the trees so it can move forward with the project.

At the heart of this matter is PG&E’s Pipeline Pathways project, designed to eliminate obstacles—such as structures and trees—that could either damage their pipelines or impede workers’ ability to reach them in an emergency.

“We’re doing this throughout our entire service area,” explained Shaun Maccoun, PG&E spokesman for the project. “We’ve identified that trees that are located above and around our pipeline present a problem. Their roots can wrap around the pipe and damage the pipe’s protective coating, which exposes it to corrosion.”

The pipes running underneath Oroville are about 4 to 5 feet deep and date back to the 1970s. That has many protesters wondering why the pipeline was placed under these trees, which were there long before PG&E moved in.

“When the pipelines were installed and up until recently, the gas pipeline industry didn’t understand the potential relationship between the trees, roots and the pipes,” Maccoun said. “We take responsibility for not knowing.”

Some communities in the East Bay have come out strongly against the Pipeline Pathways project, and local governments there have not authorized permits for the utility company to start cutting. As for these roadblocks, Maccoun simply said, “We’re continuing to work with cities in the East Bay area.”

Protests began in Oroville only after PG&E’s plans had reached the City Council level. PG&E made a short presentation on the Pipeline Pathways project in September and, with an offer of nearly $35,000 and promises to help offset the loss of the trees with alternative gardening, the council approved the plan unanimously in October. That’s when Save Oroville Trees started up—it now has more than 600 “likes” on Facebook.

“Those trees are historically integral to this cemetery and the city,” said SOT steering committee member Kent Fowler. “They’re beautiful, they’re majestic, and they haven’t proved that they pose any threat. They won’t even test the lines to be sure they are a threat.”

Pointing to recent studies regarding tree roots and how they can affect pipelines, Maccoun said they must be removed for public safety. The tree root study posted on PG&E’s website analyzes the effects of roots on pipelines. In addition to damaging the protective coating on the exterior of the pipes, “There is the potential for tree roots to structurally damage the pipeline, including inducing increased bending strains, if tree roots are uprooted by external forces.”

With no apparent imminent danger, advocates, including SOT attorney Richard Harriman, say they believe an environmental review should have been required before cutting down so many trees. That’s what Harriman called for in court—that PG&E stop the project until such a review was conducted—but each appearance led to postponement. Last week, Judge Benson upheld PG&E’s restraining order against the protesters, who’ve been blocking progress at the cemetery for a month. Monday, two days before they were due back in court, the utility began work on four of the trees there.

“We’ve had the legal authority to do this work since about mid-December,” Maccoun said. “Every time we’ve had a court appearance, the judge has upheld our right to do this safety work. It’s important to remember that this work is to ensure the safety of the entire Oroville community.”

Following the felling Monday of four trees—crews were out working till 3 a.m. Tuesday—SOT members set up tents on the sidewalk to protect the remaining nine. They had not yet formulated a plan for the future, as of press time, following Wednesday’s ruling.

The Pipeline Pathways project moves next to Paradise—with plans to cut about 258 trees, 180 of them city-owned, along Neal Road—before heading to the Midway just south of Chico. Those plans include 33 pistache trees planted within the past five years along the bike path, Maccoun said. Permits already have been granted in Paradise, he said, and the utility is currently working with land owners to negotiate the project. He anticipates work to begin soon and last a few months. They are not yet in the permitting phase for the Midway portion of the project.