If it weren’t so outrageous, the situation would be farcical: Lexington Police arresting a 64-year-old woman who stood in front of a crabapple tree on Lansdowne Drive so Kentucky Utilities contractors couldn’t cut it down as part of an absurd clear-cutting campaign under sky-high transmission lines. Hey, while they were at it, they could have also arrested former vice mayor Isabel Yates, who at the age of 97, was also at Monday’s protest.
But KU, or its corporate overlords at the PPL Corporation headquartered in Philadelphia, have clearly decided that bad headlines are a small price to pay in order to clear every tree big or small from underneath those large lines. Instead of moratoriums and compromise — begged for by citizens and politicians alike — KU ignored its many Lexington ratepayers and continues on full speed ahead. Despite the fact that those crabapples would never in 100 years reach up to interfere with transmission lines, which is why KU approved their planting on Lansdowne a decade ago.
At issue is the Transmission System Improvement Plan which requires such clear-cutting as a way to avoid power outages and the federal fines that come with them. It doesn’t matter if trees are too small to ever get within reach of the very tall transmission lines (as opposed to the shorter distribution lines in many neighborhoods). This is their corporate policy, and it doesn’t matter if the trees are small or are being used as stormwater control. Compromise, such as considering the type of tree, or simply trimming, would cost more money, so everything must go.
According to local and state politicians, including the Public Service Commission, there is nothing they can do. KU owns the right of ways under the transmission lines, and therefore company officials get to do whatever they want.
But there is something deeply wrong when a for-profit company has no accountability to the people it serves, whether they are shareholders or not. If our government is truly for the people, then the General Assembly should pass new laws that require KU to compromise with local governments, rather than use a blanket corporate policy to erase much needed tree canopy. Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, who was at Monday’s protest, told the Herald-Leader she is planning to do just that — file legislation that requires all public utilities to communicate and compromise on local issues with the public, “instead of ignoring them as KU as done.”
KU says it will replace the trees with shrubs and find other ways to be good corporate citizens. But there is no excuse for a company that holds a vital public utility to thumb its nose at a government elected by the people.
This situation is a cautionary tale for what happens when public utilities are owned by for-profit companies, and one this paper tried to correct in 2006 when it urged Lexington to buy our water system from Kentucky American Water. That effort failed, and our water rates continue to climb. KU’s lobbyists may likewise be able to defeat any civic attempts to curb this absurd behavior because our government often appears to be held hostage to the highest corporate bidders. But the idea that there’s nothing anyone can do against corporate behavior that has outraged so many citizens is absurd. Surely we can do better than this.