The friendly missives from Pepco sounded like good news. Finally, after many years of neglect, the power company sent around fliers announcing that crews were coming to trim the trees, the 80-foot-tall oaks that line Barbara Gray's street.
Then came the early morning racket, a piercing, whining noise that alarmed residents.
"The grinding and grinding didn't sound like just trimming," says Gray, who sent her husband on a recon mission on Barnaby Street NW near the District's northern tip. "Only then did we discover that we'd been ambushed. They weren't trimming, they were removing entire trees."
After Hurricane Isabel last fall, Pepco suffered a PR meltdown. The outages were massive; the wait to get the juice flowing again, exasperatingly long. But above all, it was the paucity of information from Pepco that so infuriated customers, who railed at elected officials, who in turn leaned on the utility. This fall, we see the results.
A lot of folks in Montgomery, Prince George's and Washington don't like what they see. They reject Pepco's argument that to make outages less likely, trees that are dying or blocking power lines must be sacrificed.
"What's the big rush?" Gray asks. "These trees have been here for a century. Pepco uses the old fear technique: 'If we don't take the trees down, they're going to fall on you and destroy your houses and kill your children.' Oh, please. Part of the price we pay for living with all these trees is power outages. That's a small price to live in a beautiful part of the city."
The destruction of two trees in Barnaby Woods became a headache for Pepco because the neighborhood is littered with lawyers and others proficient at making noise. Within an hour, D.C. Council member Adrian Fenty got the city to halt the cutting. Pepco and city officials accepted a 90-day stay on tree work.
"No one minds trimming trees," Fenty says, "but not one of these trees is dead."
A similar battle across the Potomac, where Dominion Virginia Power sought to ax the lush canopy of trees that shade the Washington & Old Dominion Trail to install a transmission line, ended in victory for park lovers last month when the utility agreed to look elsewhere.
Pepco set about its cutting without consulting the $50 million Casey Trees Endowment, which runs a very cool toy, a map (www.caseytrees.org) that drills down onto any block for detailed profiles of 107,000 street trees.
"Just because power lines are in the crown of a tree doesn't mean the tree needs to be aggressively pruned or removed," says Jim Lyons, executive director of the endowment. "These trees are worth $15,000 to $25,000 each. There are lots of alternatives to taking them down. Pepco should be pruning them regularly over the years instead of just once aggressively."
Cue the violins: Pepco feels caught in a bind. "We're damned if we do, damned if we don't," says spokesman Bob Dobkin. "Often the people that call to complain about outages are the same ones who yell the loudest that we're cutting down their trees. It was clear after Isabel that there was a need for more aggressive trimming. The trees in Barnaby Woods that were marked for removal are a public safety threat to the people who live there."
But through all the outrage that followed Isabel, I never heard cries for trees to be taken down. The consultant's report Pepco commissioned following Isabel didn't focus on trees. Rather, it said the utility should beef up maintenance and communicate better.
Dobkin says that's what Pepco's trying to do. Its new ads boast that the utility has "changed our procedures . . . maps of outages and crew locations are now available on www.pepco.com."
I showed the ad to my kids, who laughed. "If your power is out, you can't go online," my 8-year-old said.
Dobkin didn't laugh. "We recognize if their power is out, people can't get to the Internet. But we learned in Isabel that people find ways to get online, like computers at work."
Okay, he has a point.
And one must always be careful when poking fun at the power company. Four hours after I spoke to Dobkin, the power went out on my block. The adjacent blocks were fine.
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