CONCORD -- Pacific Gas & Electric agreed Tuesday to stop cutting down privately owned trees until it reaches agreement with city leaders on how to proceed with its pipeline safety project.
The utility's previous pledge to suspend a plan to cut down thousands of trees in the East Bay while it works with concerned cities had been largely interpreted as applying to both public and private property. But Concord leaders learned last week that the utility was still removing privately owned trees if it had an agreement in place with the homeowner.
"Where I will agree with you, I think the hold was misleading ... and that was not the intent," Chauna Moreland, director of the Pipeline Pathways Project told the City Council.
Moreland said the announced "pause" was specific to Walnut Creek, but she acknowledged that other cities believed PG&E had put the entire project on hold.
It's unclear how many homeowners will be affected by PG&E's new policy since a spokeswoman said last week that the utility has completed most of the work -- which may include removing trees, shrubs or structures -- on private property in Concord.
Representatives from PG&E were at City Hall on Tuesday because council members were scheduled to consider adopting a resolution demanding that the utility stop all tree removals in Concord until the utility agreed to discuss adequate mitigation and compensation, reimburse the city and homeowners for costs associated with planting and watering replacement trees, pinpoint the targeted trees and vegetation, and comply with the city's tree protection ordinances and the California Environmental Quality Act.
The council unanimously passed the resolution.
Council members made it clear that they strongly object to PG&E's plan to cut down about 730 trees on private and public property in Concord as part of its Pipeline Pathways Project.
A key disagreement has been the utility's refusal to abide by the city's tree protection ordinances. Pointing out that PG&E has removed trees in Concord without permits in the past, Moreland seemed perplexed by the council's insistence on this point.
"You need to follow the permit process," Councilman Dan Helix said. "That's what we're asking for; we're not getting it."
Councilwoman Laura Hoffmeister said residents have reported feeling bullied and strong-armed into signing agreements with PG&E to remove their trees or shrubs. She also said homeowners accused the utility's representatives of using "scare tactics."
"That's not correct, that's not right and that's not fair to the public," Hoffmeister said.
Moreland said unequivocally that PG&E doesn't condone such techniques and she urged the council members to share details so the utility can address employees' behavior.
Although Moreland said there is no imminent danger of a pipeline rupture in Concord, PG&E is concerned that tree roots may be damaging the protective coating on the steel pipes which could lead to corrosion.
The $500 million Pipeline Pathways Project is a statewide initiative to clear obstructions from the utility company's 6,750 miles of gas lines from Bakersfield to Eureka. PG&E says it needs to remove the trees, shrubs and structures on private and public property to ensure pipeline safety -- a top priority in the aftermath of the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
But Concord and other cities, including Walnut Creek, Martinez, Lafayette, El Cerrito and Danville, have objected to the plan, citing a lack of information about the project and lack of proof the trees are a safety hazard. Concord and other cities joined to hire a law firm to challenge PG&E and force it to abide by local tree-removal ordinances.
Lisa P. White covers Concord and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.