BGE fined over trees

Utility is facing levy of $180,000 for failing to keep limbs from transmission lines

By Paul Adams | Sun reporter
June 5, 2008

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., criticized by some lawmakers this year for being too aggressive in trimming trees around power lines, faces a $180,000 federal fine for failing to keep tree limbs a safe distance from high-voltage transmission lines, regulators said yesterday.

BGE and Des Moines, Iowa-based MidAmerica Energy Holdings Co. were among the first utilities in the nation to face financial penalties under new regulations put in place last year.

The rules were adopted partly in response to a 2003 blackout that affected 50 million people in the U.S. and Canada. The blackout, which didn't involve BGE or Maryland, was triggered when an overloaded transmission line in northeastern Ohio sagged onto tree limbs that grew too close.

The North American Electric Reliability Corp., set up to oversee transmission lines, established new mandatory rules for power lines last June.

BGE's fine stems from an Aug. 15 incident in which a transmission line connecting substations in Baltimore County and Harford County came into contact with trees, causing an interruption.

No customers were affected by the incident because of redundancies built into the power grid, said Rob Gould, a spokesman for Constellation Energy Group, BGE's corporate parent.

The utility reported the problem to NERC and subsequently conducted inspections of all of its power line corridors. The company also hired an independent contractor to check its work, after which the utility submitted plans to prevent any further problems. Those plans were later approved by regulators.

"We have a very strong compliance program, and we take very seriously the idea that trees and vegetation along transmission lines, which are the backbone of an electric system, can have negative impacts if not maintained properly," Gould said.

NERC officials credited BGE and other utilities for self-reporting power line violations and taking quick action.

"It's often said that the first step to fixing a problem is admitting that a problem exists, and that's what these companies have done," said Richard P. Sergel, NERC's president and chief executive, in a statement.

MidAmerica was fined $75,000 for similar violations.

BGE faced criticism last year by some residents upset with the utility's tree-trimming practices. A small group testified before a Senate committee in March that they received little warning that trees were going to be cut down or trimmed to protect power lines near their property. The complaints resulted in bills being introduced to give the public more input on tree trimming actions.