Last week, a judge in Knoxville upheld TVA's right to control plant growth under its transmission lines. And the utility also recently allocated more money to the vegetation management program, which involves keeping the land around lines clear of trees that could come in contact with electric lines and cause outages, damage or injury.
With the management program getting more attention in light of the recent court ruling and extra funding, TVA officials held a media event Wednesday to explain the rationale behind their vegetation control policies, which can cause unrest amongst private landowners who don't want TVA crews to come on their land and cut down trees.
And Knoxville attorney Larry Silverstein said he thinks what TVA is doing is illegal and that the information they spread is propaganda.
He said TVA crews cut trees that don’t need to be cut down, that are far away from the lines and will never cause problems.
“I think somebody has decided that they can avoid all problems if they just get rid of all the trees,” he said.
“I want a more reasonable policy.”
He said the only thing that federal authorities mandate is that there be no power outages. TVA leaders have to meet the standard of zero interruptions, but they are choosing to do it by cutting the trees, he said.
“We are talking about millions of trees and spending hundreds of millions [for cutting],” he said.
TVA owns easements around its transmission lines, which are bigger, warmer and higher than other lines, officials said.
—Now, the vegetation management program has a budget of $20-$25 million. Leaders don't expect to need that much indefinitely. Before, the allocation had been $12-15 million. About 60 percent of the program's budget goes toward tree removal.
—Every year in the United States, power outages cost about $80 million in damage.
—TVA works with 50,000 landowners in the vegetation management program.
—TVA was recently fined $175,000 because a tree caused a power interruption. That kind of incident can drive up the cost of power for everyone.
—TVA can be fined as much as $1 million a day for allowing a tree to encroach on areas around lines.
Source: TVA officials
The 16,000-mile transmission system—which is so large it could span the nation five times—connects to local power companies, such as EPB, and directly to customers.
The lines do not have insulation, and there is no contact needed to cause an interruption, meaning that electricity can jump from a line to a tree, even if the two aren't touching, and cause an interruption.
A lapse in power could affect thousands of people and negatively impact local businesses' production, such as Volkswagen or McKee Foods, TVA leaders said.
Their management program is meant to prevent power outages, ensure public safety and comply with industry standards.
The policies don't always go over well with landowners, which TVA leaders said they understand.
But they said there has been some misunderstanding about the rationale behind their program and policies.
"We are not clear-cutting," spokesman Mike Bradley said.
And TVA's Jason Regg, who has a background in environmental biology and oversees the vegetation management program, said that leaders of the utility are not "against trees."
But tall trees and transmission lines don't mix, officials said.
So TVA leaders want the right trees in the right places when they are in the easements of the lines, he said.
Although Regg said crews don't count the trees, he estimated that 1 million could be cut down throughout the valley.
As a general rule, TVA doesn’t allow trees that mature to a height of greater than 15 feet in the easements.
There is some leeway—for example, if a tree is 16 feet tall, near the end of its life and on the outside edge of the easement, it might be allowed to stay.
But leaders don’t want to stray too far from their standards, Regg said, because it is unfair to landowners not to have a consistent, standard approach.
There are also different regulations for lines of different voltages, but TVA applies the same strict standard to all the lines.
And TVA leaders make the call, not the general public.
TVA officials also cut down any trees that will grow above 15 feet as soon as they think it will be a problem.
The taller the tree gets, the more costly it is to cut them down, Regg said.
In the past, TVA leaders allowed for more exceptions, letting property owners maintain taller trees by trimming, but that approach was unreliable. Landowners didn’t always trim the trees as they agreed to, leaders said.
Allowing those exceptions increases the risk to power reliability and public safety, officials said.
Silverstein said that TVA should trim some of the trees. Leaders with the utility say trimming is costly and dangerous for workers, but Silverstein said he doesn’t understand how trimming would be more costly than cutting.
Last May, City Council members passed a resolution encouraging TVA leaders to monitor the utility's tree trimming policies, according to Nooga.com archives.
At that time, local residents voiced concerns about tree removal.
Silverstein said that he doesn’t think TVA leaders are being honest about their policies or giving homeowners enough notice about work that may be done on their land.
He also said that TVA leaves a mess on landowners’ properties after the cutting.
TVA leaders said that isn’t true and that they make efforts to give plenty of notice.
There is another court date set for July on the issue of whether TVA is violating environmental law with its policies, according to the News Sentinel.
TVA leaders said that the grassland, meadow-type areas that they create under the lines are good for the environment and can provide a “sustainable habitat” for plants and animals to thrive.
But Silverstein said he has heard from landowners all throughout the region who are devastated about the situation and feel helpless.
He expects there may be more lawsuits in the future.
“I feel very strongly that they don’t have unlimited rights to do whatever they want on somebody else’s property,” he said.
Updated @ 10:25 a.m. on 2/28/13 to add more information.