Growing use of chemicals instead of pruning trees near power lines

AUSTIN (KXAN) – In the year since the winter storm of 2021, many utility companies have focused their efforts on keeping tree limbs away from utility lines to avoid power outages. However, a growing number of utilities are using chemical solutions to manage branches, instead of pruning and trimming trees.

Power lines from the Pedernales Electric Cooperative run just over Tony Cassandra’s fence, so he said he was not surprised a crew came to assess the surrounding trees. Cassandra told KXAN that the crew left a door hanger explaining that they would apply a tree growth regulator, or TGR, called Cambistat, to trees near the lines, to “reduce growth” and “to improve health”.

However, he became concerned when he read that the growth of surrounding grass, shrubs, flowers and other vegetation could also be stunted.

“Even if I was okay with them stunting the growth of this tree, am I okay with them stunting the growth of everything around it?” he said. “I do not think so.”

A spokesperson for Pedernales Electric Cooperative said the product increases safety for its crews, promotes healthy trees, saves co-op members money and boosts reliability against outages.

“These products are regulated by the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) and always applied by a TDA-trained and licensed contractor,” he said.

PEC says its “targeted” use of herbicide products is part of an overall strategy that also includes hand cutting, mowing and mulching.

What are these products?

Daphne Richards, a horticulture expert and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agent, said there are dozens of these types of products — also called tree growth inhibitors or tree growth retardants — that share the active ingredient Paclobutrazol. .

She said it was most often used in small factories, but more and more utility companies were using it as “a tool in their management toolkit” as they tried to protect customers from outages or even dangerous wildfires caused by trees falling on the power. lines.

Here’s how it works: The chemical mimics a plant hormone by preventing cells in the woody part of the plant between the branches from elongating and stretching and keeping the plant as a whole more compact.

Door hanger explaining the tree growth regulation program for a northwest Austin neighborhood (KXAN Photo/Avery Travis)

“The tree produces the same number of leaves, the same number of branches. It just causes them to stay closer to each other,” she said.

Richards noted that there are several advantages to using these products over pruning.

For example, TGRs can help maintain a tree’s appearance and shape, while preventing damage to tree health from pruning at the wrong time of year.

“[The utility company] cannot prune all the trees in our neighborhood — in our community — all within the window of time when perhaps the trees need pruning and when it is most beneficial for that tree to be pruned,” she said. “Take the example of oak trees. There are some very short windows for which we recommend pruning oaks.

Several studies also show that TGR give leaves a richer green color and also protect against fungal diseases that can attack urban trees.

However, the labels of these products carry specific warnings and restrictions, as well as a “caution” notice.

According to documents from the Environmental Protection Agency, caution is the lowest toxicity category that can be found on a pesticide product, after “danger” and “warning”.

“It’s a very safe product for the tree, as long as it’s used by someone who knows what they’re doing. It’s not a poison.”

Daphne Richards, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service

The label of Cambistat, one of the products registered with the EPA and containing Paclobutrazol as an ingredient, warns that the product may be “harmful if swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin”.

  • Learn more about how the EPA labels pesticide products and chemicals here

He also states:Avoid contact with skin, eyes or clothing. Avoid breathing spray mist. Wash thoroughly with soap and water after handling and before eating, drinking, chewing gum, using tobacco or using the toilet. Wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, socks, shoes, and gloves. Remove and wash contaminated clothing before reuse.

The label goes on to state that it should not be used on fruit or nut trees that will be harvested, should not be applied directly to water, and may affect surrounding vegetation.

Richards said that’s why she suggests people always discuss their backyard and their options with their utility provider.

“’This tree is close to this situation.’ And ‘what tree are you talking about?’ I think all of this is really good information to have,” she said. “The more context we give people, the more information they have, the more comfortable they feel with the process, which is just as important as the process itself.”

The Pedernales Electric Cooperative spokesperson noted that before using the product on any of its members’ properties, PEC always provides advance notice and information, as well as the opportunity to speak to one of its members. vegetation experts for any questions. Members can also choose to opt out of the program.

Cassandra said her real concern was the opt-out nature of the PEC program. He said he hopes his neighbors have had time to do their own research and decide for themselves.

“So if I was on vacation for a week or two, they could have come to treat me and I never would have known,” he said. “This brochure is not enough to make me make an informed decision because it is one-sided.”

According to the PEC website, crews go door to door and will leave a door notice with their contact information if you are not home. If you have a water supply within 100 feet of the right-of-way or have other questions or concerns, be sure to contact them within five business days. I

“If five days have passed and they have not heard from you, the request will proceed as scheduled, without further notice,” it read.

Cassandra said PEC has already communicated about the tree prunings, including sending out flyers, emails and mail letters about upcoming work. He was in contact with PEC about his concerns about tree growth regulators, and he was able to withdraw from the program.

According to its website, PEC also continues to prune and prune where necessary. The spokesperson said: “Vegetation management is key to preventing power outages and helping crews restore power, as quickly and safely as possible.”

  • Learn more about PEC’s Vegetation Management Plan here

Austin Energy, which supplies electricity to the majority of the city, said it also uses these types of products, but on a “very limited” basis. In early February, the power system’s vice president of field operations, Elton Richards, said he would plaster the limbs that were cut to prevent growth in rare circumstances. More often than not, he says, Austin Energy uses this product for vine control, not on trees.

“We try to stay as far away from chemicals as possible,” he said.

According to a KXAN report in February, Austin Energy cut trees along nearly 300 miles of distribution lines, in part due to an increased vegetation management budget.

  • Learn more about Austin Energy’s Vegetation Management Plan here

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