Julie Thayer sits on the stump of a recently cut oak tree that one day earlier had overlooked a seasonal wetland in the Ocean Street Extension neighborhood, at the edge of Santa Cruz’s city limits. About 50 yards away, at the county line, her 8-year-old daughter Camila mounts a Tennessee Walking Horse for a ride down the road—horseback riding is allowed in the county, but not in the city of Santa Cruz.
We walk down to where Camila’s horse is standing; holding the reins is their neighbor, Chester Charleton, who’s lived on the street for 40 years. He points up the road to where Thayer had been sitting; that stump had once been a tree that formed half of a gateway over the road into their neighborhood. Now it’s gone, along with 50 to 60 trees in nearby Memorial Park Cemetery.
“You’d drop out of Santa Cruz, and into paradise. They chopped half of it down. For what reason?” he asks.
That’s the question Thayer wants to have answered—as well as how PG&E was able to skirt local heritage tree ordinances in the name of its Pipeline Safety Initiative. Some neighbors have referred to Thayer as “the Lorax,” after the Dr. Seuss character who speaks for the trees. Others call her “Erin Brockovich,” who successfully built and won a case against PG&E in 1993.
Thayer—a professional biologist who would rather not reveal where she works, out of fear of retribution from PG&E—worries that the gas and electric company has damaged the local ecology, avoided transparency and ducked mitigations, all while providing insufficient notifications, and perhaps even endangering the community.
The tree cutting has hit a nerve for customers of PG&E—a company many already distrusted after its SmartMeter roll out, the battle over community choice energy and the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, among other fiascos.
Less than a month ago, Thayer and her daughter detected two large nests in Ocean Street Extension’s oak trees, which PG&E cut down on March 8. Thayer says the oaks were homes to San Francisco dusky-footed woodrats, a California species of special concern, and that they served the vital function of absorbing the runoff that flows into the neighborhood, which is prone to flooding. She doesn’t believe PG&E did an adequate environmental review. “It’s been difficult to understand what can be done after the fact,” she says.
Thayer says that after she realized PG&E would be cutting these oaks as part of its Pipeline Safety Initiative, which spans 6,750 miles of gas lines from Bakersfield to Eureka, she got upset and contacted the company in January with a list of questions that were never fully answered. So far, the utility company has continued with its project undeterred on the city side of the border.
But Santa Cruz County leaders have requested a halt to PG&E’s tree cutting outside city limits, pending a comprehensive study that assesses the combined scope of the removal of multiple trees from both public and private property on its side. Matt Johnston, a Santa Cruz County planner, says this group of informed neighbors has brought the issue to the attention of local officials.
“I think they may be sidestepping a few requirements,” says the Ocean Street Extension Neighborhood Association’s Allen Hasty, who runs an organic farm with his wife Judy. “We want to know all of the facts before trees start getting cut down.”
After the tree cutting began, Hasty held an ill-fated one-man protest on Wednesday, March 7, blocking access to the trees with his Ford Explorer. After he went home that night, PG&E erected a fence barricading the area and the following day, workers cut down eight oak and cedar trees, as well as a redwood tree in which Thayer says she had observed a grey horned owl during a nocturnal survey.
PG&E sent a biologist, who Hasty remembers spent a lot of time looking at the ground when she visited the site at 9 a.m. He says he asked her if she did a nocturnal study, and she responded by asking him why—since you can’t see anything at night.
“You never do bird surveys by sight,” Thayer says. “You do them by ear.”
PG&E initially approached the city of Santa Cruz this past October about clearing trees the same way that it does with other municipalities, says City Manager Martín Bernal. After conversations between attorneys, the two parties came to an agreement, but before it went to the Santa Cruz City Council for public input, PG&E changed course.
“They just decided they didn’t want to take that approach,” Bernal says. The eight-page cooperative agreement between the city and PG&E identified a collaborative approach that addressed community needs and expectations, both for the environment and for maintaining the the safety and integrity of the pipeline. Then the company sent a letter addressed to him informing Bernal of its intent to proceed under the state’s California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) jurisdiction. Without an agreement to bring forward to the council for authorization, the issue was never discussed in a public forum.
PG&E argues that the California Public Utilities Commission’s jurisdiction trumps local regulations, giving the utility the right to bypass the tree removal permit process. The utility company paid the city a one-time tree replacement fund mitigation fee of $10,000.
Councilmember Chris Krohn tells GT in an email that many community members have approached him in sadness and in anger. “This City Council must stand up to PG&E and demand environmental review for every tree,” he writes. “Our heritage tree ordinance covers trees on both public and private property.”
Bernal says that if the city decides that PG&E has broken the rules, the next course could be legal action. If the city disagrees that PG&E isn’t exempt under the CPUC, the council could direct the city attorney to file a lawsuit. Bernal says Krohn has made that request, and the City Council will consider whether or not to proceed with litigation.
In 2014, a coalition of cities in Contra Costa and Alameda counties was dealing with a similar situation, and hired the law firm Meyers Nave, the same group that served as special counsel to the city of San Bruno when a PG&E explosion there resulted in a record $1.6 billion in fines and criminal charges. $850 million of that money was required to go toward gas transmission safety infrastructure improvements, hence the Pipeline Safety Initiative. The cities rejected PG&E’s legal rationale, insisting that the company obtain local permits before removing any trees.
The mayors raised awareness through television appearances. Meyers Nave attorney John Bakker wrote a letter to PG&E’s counsel, which resulted in a much slower process of determining which trees should be cut. Not every tree in the pipeline, it turned out, needed to come down.
In a statement to GT, PG&E claims the tree cutting is necessary because “when trees and brush are located too close to the pipeline, they can delay access for safety crews in an emergency or for critical maintenance work, and cause potential damage to the pipe.”
A safety recommendation from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration specifies that for “high-consequence areas” like Santa Cruz County, the first response to a gas leak is to shut down the flow of gas. At that point, cutting a tree is a minor step in the process to repair the pipe, and residents agree that such a situation would warrant it.
As far as damage to the pipe, Thayer and other environmentalists note that PG&E’s own study demonstrated inconclusive evidence that tree roots pose a threat to the pipeline.
Paul Norcutt, a member of the San Lorenzo Valley Women’s Club Environmental Group and retired senior systems program manager, has extensively studied the matter and provided a 17-page document filled with scientific evidence that was instrumental in the county’s decision to request further review.
“I’m just flabbergasted,” he says, “because their own paper doesn’t say the roots affect the pipeline. These pipelines have been in the ground for over 50 years, and they’ve been wrapped in roots for at least 40 probably 45 years, and there’s 300,000 miles of pipeline and millions of roots wrapping around them and there’s never been a mention of them in the corrosion journals.”
Norcutt says there’s a long history of industry-written research drafted to justify its actions. (He cites the recent New York Times article, “Ten Monkeys and a Beetle,” which details how Volkswagen flubbed a scientific experiment to falsify its emissions data.) Norcutt believes the utility giant’s safety initiative is deceptive.
Illusion of Safety?
Thayer and her Ocean Street Extension neighbors say PG&E is using the pipeline initiative to create an illusion that it’s doing something to increase public safety. They argue that, in reality, the opposite is true, and tree removal destabilizes the soil during earthquakes and landslides.
Additionally, it saves PG&E money to rely on direct assessment, which has been called into question.
Thayer says direct assessment was shown in the San Bruno trials to be ineffective to the point of being dangerous and possibly illegal. “Not only was record keeping poor,” she says, “but in one instance, an inspector standing directly over a leak could not detect it.”
Costly federal requirements, via the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, call for a more accurate method of testing such as in-line inspections (ILI) or pressure testing. These more effective methods are also more time-consuming and expensive for the company. The approach demands shut-off of valves, as well as relighting all of the pilot lights in a community afterwards. In fact, a federal jury found PG&E guilty of not using the most accurate means for inspecting pipelines.
“Trees and their roots can act as a barrier to the accidental or illegal dig-in, which by far, is the greatest reason of pipeline failure, the figure is 75 percent, nothing else, is even close,” Thayer says. “Without trees, open exposure invites problems.”
Thayer believes there hasn’t been a bigger public outcry because the company piecemeals their projects, moving through communities. And once trees are cut, there isn’t anything else community members can do.
“They have been doing this again and again to different cities, not being straight about their intent or their understanding of regulations,” she says. “And just flat-out being misleading and lying.”