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What's with TVA's tree-cutting? Think ice storms

10:19 AM, Jul 2, 2012   |    comments
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By Gail Kerr | The Tennessean

Let's talk ice storm.

I know, I know. It's hotter than Satan's fiery furnace outside, with temperatures breaking records and making "swelter" the most-spoken word dripping off tongues. But the ramifications of the Great Ice Storm of 1994 are being felt once again.

The Tennessee Valley Authority is under fire for its plan to chop down trees near and under its high-power lines along 16,000 miles in seven states. Meanwhile, Nashville Electric Service has a new campaign to educate people about what trees are safe to plant under its lines.

Why?

One reason is because of what happened 18 years ago. Just after dark fell on Feb. 10, 1994, temperatures dropped dramatically across Tennessee, and falling rain changed to ice. Overnight, more than an inch of frozen rain coated power lines, tree limbs, fences, homes, sheds, barns and cars. Electrical transformers overloaded and shorted out, with loud explosions that were universally described as sounding like a war zone.

The ice was beautiful, but it was deadly: five people, including three children, lost their lives.

Thousands of trees and limbs fell, pulling power lines down with them. Officials said 60 percent of all streets were blocked. Schools were closed for days. In Metro, the cleanup cost topped $1.8 million, with 25,000 tons of trees and branches to be picked up.

Half a million Tennesseans were without electricity, including 80,000 in Nashville. TVA's service area in Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi had 630,000 people without power. It took 14 days to get all power restored.

Recovery took more than a year. And it wasn't an isolated incident: Middle Tennessee had a crippling ice storm in 1989 and a blizzard in 1951.

An editorial printed after the 1994 ice storm called on utility companies "to take a hard look at policies and resources for keeping lines clear."

NES did just that. At first, neighbors roared with outrage when NES crews chopped their trees in funky shapes to keep them from growing into the power lines. But the utility has improved its technique over the years. Now, there's a new push on Facebook with a video titled Right Tree, Right Place

to educate homeowners about what to plant. For every "like" or "share," the agency will contribute $1 to its tree-planting fund.

TVA is not having as much good luck with its public relations. The agency is under federal orders to manage and trim trees near transmission lines. The Arbor Day police are after them -- local officials are urging TVA to reconsider. A group of homeowners in East Tennessee has filed a federal lawsuit.

No one adores the idea of chopping down vibrant trees. But the reality is, we are a society that depends on and takes for granted having power. Would you want to live without air conditioning?

TVA officials do need to work with homeowners one on one and not just clear cut all trees. Overall, the agency is in the right here.

It's hard to believe now, but it will get cold again. TVA and NES officials can't stop an ice storm. But they can sure make recovery easier by controlling trees.

Gail Kerr's column runs on Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays. She can be reached at 615-259-8085 or gkerr@tennessean.com.

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