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Many power outages were caused by ice-coated branches tearing down wires. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Many power outages were caused by ice-coated branches tearing down wires. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Ice Storm Aftermath

Councillors seek review of tree-trimming budget Add to ...

Two councillors on Toronto Hydro’s board are questioning the utility’s decision to cut spending on tree trimming near overhead lines, saying they were unaware the city-owned company had reined in pruning costs.

Councillors Gloria Lindsay Luby and Josh Colle said the board of directors did not discuss Toronto Hydro’s tree-maintenance budget. Both politicians want the utility’s handling of this potential hazard reviewed in the wake of the December ice storm, which knocked out power to about 300,000 electricity customers in Toronto and cost the city nearly $100-million in damages.

“It’s really shocking to me that an area like tree pruning has been cut back so substantially,” said Ms. Lindsay Luby, whose Etobicoke ward was hit hard in the ice storm. “That, to me, is not a good way to save money. I think we need to be asking questions.”

An analysis by The Globe and Mail published earlier this week showed Toronto Hydro allotted $2.5-million to pruning trees in 2012, down from $3.5-million in 2010 and less than half of what was spent in 1999. Back then, the newly amalgamated power company put more than $5-million toward tree trimming, absorbing multiple contracts from several municipal utilities.

Toronto Hydro spokeswoman Tanya Bruckmueller said board members’ orientation packages include information on the utility’s tree-pruning program and current and past budget figures. The business plan presented to the board for approval also includes tree-spending details, she added, although the board would not generally talk about individual budget items. Ms. Bruckmueller noted the recent decrease in tree spending reflects a reduction in prices negotiated with a contractor and not a reduction in the number of trees pruned each year.

Yet an examination of tree-maintenance budgets from 10 electric utilities across Canada reveals Toronto Hydro spent less on trees in 2012 than Hydro Ottawa, which committed $2.7-million. Hydro Ottawa has less than half the number of power customers that Toronto has and 12,200 fewer kilometres of overhead wires. Still, the two utilities prune about the same number of trees annually: around 42,000 in Toronto and about 40,000 in the nation’s capital.

Mr. Colle said he plans to raise the tree-maintenance issue with fellow Toronto Hydro board members. The public needs answers, he said. Mr. Colle also intends to ask that tree pruning be included in a review of Toronto Hydro’s response to the storm.

“I think it is something that has to be looked at and reviewed just based on the comparables with other cities,” Mr. Colle told The Globe. “Anything that would put the system at greater risk, those are dollars I would think are worthwhile spending up front to save greater expenses at the back end.”

The December ice storm walloped Southern Ontario just before Christmas, triggering one of the longest blackouts in provincial history. About 600,000 power customers were affected. A major cause of the outages was ice-coated trees breaking apart and tearing down wires.

Toronto Hydro has ordered an external audit of how it handled the ice storm. Sean Conway, a visiting fellow at Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Energy and a former Liberal cabinet minister, is part of an expert panel that will oversee the probe. He said the scope of the audit is still being finalized, but he expects the role of trees and pruning practices will be examined. The provincial government is also planning to investigate how utilities’ responded to the blackout.

Toronto Hydro notes that its tree-related outages are down eight per cent since 2008, when the power company adopted a pruning model different from other electric utilities in Canada. The utility’s supervisor of forestry regularly inspects the work of tree trimmers, much of which is contracted out.

A probe of how power companies handled a 2008 ice storm that crippled New Hampshire yielded numerous recommendations, including calls for more aggressive vegetation management and greater spending on tree trimming.

The review, done for the utilities’ regulator, also urged the power companies to boost call-centre staffing in emergencies and to give customers an estimate on when their electricity will be restored.

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