Tree stand

PG&E and community get-together gets emotional

This tree (far left) is one of the 32 marked for removal by PG&E along the Midway.

This tree (far left) is one of the 32 marked for removal by PG&E along the Midway.

Photo by tom gascoyne

In the aftermath of the highly publicized and criticized removal by PG&E of nearly 250 trees earlier this year in Oroville, the company has held two community meetings as it prepares to take down another 32 trees growing along the Midway between Chico and Durham. The Oroville tree takedown was protested by many and led to the formation of a group called Save Oroville Trees.

The most controversial part of the tree removal was the taking of century-old sycamores that lined the Oroville Cemetery. Protesters were arrested and some of the trees were taken down even as the matter was being considered in Butte County Superior Court, and they have since filed a lawsuit against PG&E. In some Bay Area cities, PG&E has reduced its tree removal plans in light of pushback from city government.

“We learned a lot from the situation in Oroville,” said Shaun Maccoun, a PG&E spokesman, before the second of the two meetings, on Monday (April 27) at Patrick Ranch.

Maccoun said the safety of PG&E’s customers is the company’s first priority.

“The important thing here is that we are doing this important gas safety work so that first responders and our own emergency response crews can get to the pipe in an emergency or in a natural disaster when every second truly counts,” he said.

The tree removals are part of PG&E’s efforts to protect the 6,750 miles of gas transmission lines that run throughout the state. The company says tree roots can grow and rub against the pipelines, eroding their protective sealant, which can lead to pipeline erosion and leaks. The trees also can present barriers to first responders or PG&E workers reacting to a gas leak.

The Pipeline Pathways Project was triggered by the 2010 explosion in the Bay Area community of San Bruno that killed eight people and injured 58 others. That explosion was caused by faulty welds along the pipeline, according to an investigation by PG&E. That fact trees weren’t responsible was noted a number of times by some of the 75 or so audience members during the meeting.

Butte County Supervisor Steve Lambert, whose district includes the Midway and the Patrick Ranch, acted as the moderator. He said the purpose of the meeting was to address what is going on in the county. Meetings for planned tree removals in the city of Chico will come later down the road. Lambert acknowledged the anxiety that exists because of what happened in Oroville.

“We can’t forget about the past, but let’s move forward,” he said.

Lambert then introduced Jim Monninger, a PG&E customer service manager, who began his presentation on a rather eerie note. He referred to the audience sign-in sheet and said it was not only a means of providing people with additional information, but also a way of keeping track of people should disaster strike during the meeting.

He said, with utter seriousness, that “This is something that PG&E does at all of our internal meetings. We make sure that we have identified individuals who can help if we were to need to call 911 for any type of event.”

Monninger made sure someone would lead the crowd out to safety and that someone else would make the 911 call.

“As for me, I’m going to go down with the ship,” he said. “I’ll be the one who sweeps the area, making sure that we’ve accounted for everybody and that everybody is safe.”

And with that cautionary note, he began his presentation about pipeline safety.

“I’m not just a customer service manager,” he began. “I’m also a member of the Durham community and have lived here almost 14 years.”

Using a PowerPoint, he explained the statewide gas-pipe system and why trees had to be removed in certain areas.

“After the tragic San Bruno incident, PG&E undertook a tremendous review of all of our safety practices,” he said. “That was a significant event for this company that fundamentally changed how we do business. It’s had a profound effect on me. I vowed I’d do whatever I could to make sure nothing like this happened again.”

He said in 2013 an intensive study of the pipelines determined that sections of the system ran beneath houses, pools, sheds and trees. There were 50 cases in which sections of houses had to be removed and rebuilt, all at PG&E’s expense.

The 32 trees coming down along the Midway are California pepper trees and Chinese pastiche trees that were planted about five years ago. The larger trees growing along the Midway will not be taken down, but will be trimmed to protect the overhead power lines.

Monninger then called for break-out sessions to allow audience members to talk personally with the PG&E reps who were present. This met with a protest from some in the audience who began yelling, “No! No! No!” The protesters said the individual conversations were not conducive to a public meeting where the information should be shared by all in attendance.

Environmental activist Mark Herrera called the meeting “a dog and pony show.”

Lambert then stepped back in front of the audience to try to settle things down.

“This is a tough meeting because people are worried about trees,” he said. “It’s important for me to be respectful to folks who live here and be respectful to the PG&E reps. We’ve learned a lot from the Oroville situation. The folks here from PG&E don’t respond well to yelling.”

Herrera then asked how many more meetings there would be “before a community forum rather than a PG&E forum is held?”

PG&E’s Alison Feliz, who is also a customer service manager, countered that the company’s intention was to get feedback from the community.

“By nature, there is information that has to come from PG&E and we have to be better at listening,” she said. “We have a history of not listening as well as we should. This is a two-way street and we want to hear from you and we know we are going to hear a lot of tough comments today.”

Feliz said the tree situation was a challenge and uphill battle. “We’re big, bad PG&E. It’s hard to get over that,” she said.

She acknowledged there was problem with the ways things were handled in Oroville.

“Oroville didn’t go any way PG&E wanted it to go,” she said. “There were a lot of lessons learned. We understand the impact that work had on that community. We’re trying to do better. It’s an uphill battle because we don’t have the best reputation with the locals.”

There is no timeline set for when the trees will come down, Feliz said.