"They probably hate my guts."
Larry Silverstein is sitting at a table at Barnes and Noble. The table is covered in stacks of paper, as is the one behind him, as are two chairs beside him. There is a light in Silverstein's eyes that is almost gleeful as he talks about his favorite subject of late: the Tennessee Valley Authority.
"They probably hate my guts," he says with more than a hint of pride in his voice. "I don't care."
Silverstein is 56, and from a distance, he has the look of a mild-mannered accountant, although he is actually a retired lawyer. There is the carefully cropped light grey hair, the square wire-frame glasses perched expertly on the bridge of his nose, and the way the dark grey polo shirt neatly fits his trim frame. Which is to say, Silverstein looks too nebbishy to be an environmental activist. But looks can be deceiving.
"I'm the first one who's ever dared stand up to them," Silverstein says. In the broad scheme of things, this statement is of course patently untrue—TVA has come under the wrath of environmentalists for years, since not long after it was established in 1933. But here, now, in Knoxville, Silverstein has a point. No one is going after TVA the way he is.
The object of Silverstein's ire, and the reason he has brought so many reams of paper to our interview, is TVA's transmission right-of-way vegetation-maintenance plan, which is only just now beginning to be enforced in the Knoxville area.
"There are just a gazillion trees that are going to get cut down that nobody knows about," Silverstein says, his voice growing more impassioned with every word. "Unless this policy gets changed, these trees are gone!"
A gazillion may be an exaggeration, but Silverstein is correct that TVA is in the process of cutting down hundreds of thousands of trees across seven states—any tree that TVA deems unsuitable and happens to grow on a TVA transmission line easement. Easement brush clearing is nothing new, but for the first time ever, TVA is clearing the full width of the easements of any vegetation that is over 15 feet tall, even trees that have long been deemed safely out of the way of the power lines. TVA says the change in policy will make everyone safer, but an unlikely coalition of environmentalists and property rights activists have joined forces to stop TVA before all 15,900 miles of transmission lines are cleared. This group's leader? Larry Silverstein.
It shouldn't be news to anyone that trees and power lines often do not make good neighbors. The former have a tendency to fall on the latter during storms, for example, which is why utility companies like the Knoxville Utilities Board are apt to prune them into such confounding shapes. But TVA's transmission lines aren't just power lines. Unlike the wires KUB runs into your house, transmission lines are extremely high voltage and uninsulated, which is why you really don't want a tree getting near them. If vegetation gets too close, electricity from an uninsulated wire can arc to it, causing fires, power outages, and worse.
This is exactly what happened on August 14, 2003. Trees brushed against a transmission line in northern Ohio, which caused the line to switch off. Within two hours, a cascade of failures in the electrical grid led to the largest blackout in the history of the United States. For up to two days, 50 million people were without power in the northeast and Canada in the sweltering summer heat. Eleven people died.
Before the blackout, there were no mandatory federal standards regulating the reliability of the electrical grid. The North American Electricity Reliability Council—NERC—had standards, but they were voluntary. However, in 2005 Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which required the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—FERC—to enforce NERC standards.
The scale of the blackout was caused by several factors, of which overgrown vegetation was just one. FERC has approved dozens of new reliability standards since then, aimed to improve every aspect of the electrical grid. But the only one Larry Silverstein cares about is NERC Standard FAC-003-1—the Transmission Vegetation Management Program.
After several drafts and revisions, the NERC Board of Trustees adopted FAC-003-1 on April 7, 2006. The intent of the standard is to prevent outages from vegetation located on or adjacent to transmission line rights-of-way, where those lines are 200 kilovolt and above or "lower voltage lines designated … as critical to the reliability of the electric system in the region."
The companies that own the transmission lines—TVA, Duke Energy, Southern Power, etc.—are required to file a formal transmission vegetation-management program with NERC that establishes "clearances between vegetation and any overhead, ungrounded supply conductors, taking into account transmission-line voltage, the effect of ambient temperature on conductor sag under maximum design loading, and the effects of wind velocities on conductor sway." (That is to say, transmission lines sag in the heat, which is often when they are most overloaded, and so any clearing of vegetation under those lines needs to account for the most extreme conditions.)
It's important to note here that FAC-003-1 does not mandate any specific clearance. It doesn't say the entire easement must be cleared. It doesn't say all vegetation must be under a certain height. What it does say is that transmission owners should take local conditions into account, such as "operating voltage, vegetation management techniques, fire risk, reasonably anticipated tree and conductor movement, species type and growth rates, species failure characteristics, local climate and rainfall patterns, line terrain and elevation, location of the vegetation within the span, and worker approach distance requirements." In other words, NERC recognizes that one size does not necessarily fit all.
Back at Barnes and Noble, Larry Silverstein methodically works through his stacks of papers. There are articles, legal filings, federal regulations, and speeches he has made to local government. No one can say he hasn't done his homework.
Silverstein has been a local tree advocate for years. He's battled KUB's tree-cutting policies over and over, but he never paid much attention to TVA until 2009, when he got to know Summer Henry and Chris Szluha. The West Knoxville couple fought TVA over trees that were to be cut down in their yard, finally resulting in a compromise that allowed them to pay to trim the trees themselves, which they did, at a cost of almost $900.
TVA cut down those trees on March 8 of this year.
"These trees are now gone," Silverstein says, pointing to a picture of the couple's yard. "This was a cedar, this was a sweet gum, this was a pine tree. There was another pine tree beside it."
What happened between 2009 and now is that TVA changed its vegetation-management policy to comply with FAC-003-1. Make that, TVA started enforcing its new policy.
When FAC-003-1 was passed in 2006, utilities were given a full year before it became effective. Since 2007, TVA has acted to comply with the standard, but it was only two years ago that the utility really started ramping up enforcement in some of the seven states in which it has transmission lines. Knoxville's turn started last fall.
Back when TVA first started building transmission lines and getting easements for those lines from property owners in the 1930s, the lines were on rural land. Now the lines run over strip malls and subdivisions, apartment complexes and condo communities—not just in West Knoxville, but all over the city and the surrounding counties. There are 500 kV lines and 230 kV lines and 161 kV lines, most with 150 foot easements. Very few of those easements have ever been fully cleared.
Silverstein packs up his papers and offers a tour of what TVA is likely to cut. As we drive around West Knoxville, he gestures out the window at trees on Gleason Road and Morrell, at trees near the mall and the development around it. We drive through an apartment complex and businesses and neighborhoods. Throughout the afternoon, the statement Silverstein makes over and over is the same: "See all these trees right here? All these trees are in jeopardy."
There are crepe myrtles and dogwoods, pine trees and redbuds, overgrown hedges and gigantic shrubs. Anything taller than 15 feet and within 150 feet of a transmission line is coming down. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. And Silverstein can't stand it.
"TVA claims the easement is really all that matters. But an easement is just a chance to use someone else's property. … It's very broad, but it's not the end of the legal argument," Silverstein says. "They can use it, nobody's denying that, but they don't have the right to unreasonably damage it. To me it's not reasonable or necessary to clear cut all these trees. I just think it's illegal."
"He said—four times he said this—the easement is owned by the United States government, and the United States government can do what it wants, any time it wants," says Dr. Vance Sherwood. He's recounting a conversation he had with one of TVA's lawyers shortly after he found out all the vegetation in his backyard was scheduled to be cut down. "The policy is overkill. It's like a physician who cuts everyone's foot off, no matter what's wrong with them."
Sherwood and his wife Donna live in Westminster Place, a planned unit development off Westland Drive. A few weeks ago they discovered their backyard was swathed in pink ribbons, as was the entire greenway of the development. TVA ties the ribbons onto vegetation it intends to cut down. Not only were large old-growth trees marked, but so were shrubs, tiny saplings, and almost all the landscaping that had been planted by the development to minimize the impact of the transmission lines.
Sherwood says he and his neighbors offered to pre-pay for 15 years of tree-trimming to TVA specifications in order to keep the plants, but TVA turned them down. So Sherwood and his neighbor Jerome Pinn filed a lawsuit on April 3 to prevent the trees from coming down.
"We didn't want to file a lawsuit," Pinn says. "They did allow people to trim their trees and now they don't. It's unreasonable. I don't know why trees that would never be a threat would be removed. What was reasonable has suddenly become unreasonable."
Although TVA started enforcing its new tree-trimming policy over two years ago, its website still said as recently as March that TVA would sometimes work with property owners to allow trimming and pruning. Now, however, it states "tree-trimming is a hazardous and expensive activity. Generally, TVA cuts danger trees instead of trimming them due to the expense and hazard of the maintenance."
Sherwood says this is ridiculous. "We feel the policy is not legal and not common-sensical. … It's the worst kind of policy—a good policy needs to have exceptions."
Sherwood says he has been trying to get other neighborhoods to join the lawsuit but as of yet has had no luck. But that doesn't mean other neighborhoods aren't outraged.
"One size fits all. That's what we have a problem with." Vonnie Jarrard uncrosses her legs and leans forward. She's sitting on the couch next to Janie Tarwater in the well appointed sunroom of Debra Van Meter, who's across the room on the edge of her chair.
"It's doesn't make sense," Van Meter says. "It sounds like their existing policy was working very well. … In the past they've cleared about 60 feet, so it's one and half more times than they've cleared in the past."
Van Meter should know. Her backyard spills into a TVA easement, as do Jarrard's and Tarwater's. The three women have lived in the posh Kensington neighborhood off Northshore Drive for almost two decades. TVA comes through every few years and cuts down overgrown brush, but they've never cleared the full width of the easement. Jarrard's yard has a stand of old pine trees that are on the easement. TVA's never bothered with them. Now, Jarrard suspects, half her backyard is getting chopped down.
In Kensington, home prices start at $400,000 and go up. All three women say they paid a premium for their deep lots, and Jarrard and Van Meter even note they got TVA approval of plantings they've done under the transmission lines. But that was before the new policy. Now the women are worried they're about to lose a lot of expensive landscaping—and that's not the only reason they've started a petition to get TVA to change its policy.
"They say that they'll allow growth up to 15 feet, but what's to prevent them from changing the rules again and saying they don't want anything at all under it?" Jarrard asks.
"It's not just West Knoxville," Van Meter says. "If you cut all these trees and use all this herbicide, that's affecting erosion, that's affecting water quality, that's affecting pollution."
Last Wednesday morning, Larry Silverstein puts out a frantic call. "TVA is cutting down the trees at Summit right now. Even though they promised they would only do it on a Saturday, they're there right now."
The 60 or so cypresses at the Summit Medical Group on Wellington Drive in Deane Hill had gotten a lot of public attention the prior few weeks, but by the time I make it out there, half of them are gone. It's 12:35 p.m. Silverstein says the cutting started less than a hour earlier.
"I am so mad," he says. "You really missed me cussing them out."
The "them" Silverstein refers to is TVA staffers Travis Brickey, Michael Nance, and Jason Regg. Brickey is a media spokesperson, Nance is in charge of the Knoxville area rights-of-way, and Regg is in charge of the region's vegetation management program. All three men are more than willing to talk.
"First of all, we're not clear-cutting," Brickey says. "We're talking about trees that grow to 15 feet in maturity."
"15 feet is considered a best management practice," says Regg.
What about the tiny saplings at risk in Westminster Place?
"It doesn't have to be 15 feet now," Brickey says.
"It's cheaper to cut trees when they're smaller," Regg adds.
Why isn't tree-trimming an option?
"Trimming requires more maintenance. It becomes a cost issue. When TVA saves money, rate payers save money," Brickey says. "We have almost 16,000 miles of transmission lines. That is something we have to take into consideration. It is our vision to provide low cost and cleaner energy."
Mention cleaner energy to Silverstein, though, and he almost spits. "Trees clean the air!" he says. "And a lot of what they're doing right now isn't even under FERC standards. It's just speculation. They say it's cheaper to cut down trees than to trim them, but I don't believe it. It's not cheap to do this."
Silverstein does have a point, at least when it comes to FERC (or NERC) standards—they only apply to transmission lines of over 200 kV. TVA says they are being proactive in clearing under lines that are only 161 kV, and that they expect NERC to change its regulations to require the same standards for lower-power lines.
"We want to apply the same standard across the system," Regg says.
But homeowners like Van Meter don't buy it.
"So you're cutting almost 16,000 miles of easements on the potential that the regulations might become more stringent?" Van Meter says, her face wrinkled in disbelief. She points out that TVA has a 99.999 rate of reliability. "So for the .001 percent of failure, they're willing to cut 16,000 miles?"
Two days later, Brickey and Nance take me out to some rolling farmland near Maryville.
"This is the Watts Bar to Volunteer line. It's a 98-mile line," Brickey says, pointing to the giant transmission wires that suddenly seem very, very near to earth. "This bad boy here is a 500 kV line. And that's a 161 kV line, run on the same towers."
"It's about as critical a line as I have in my system," Nance says. The men explain that the lines run from the Watts Bar nuclear plant over to East Knoxville, meandering in and out of neighborhoods, including Kensington, to bring power to a large chunk of East Tennessee. There are a handful of workers clearing brush and cutting down trees in the field below us. "Thomas Contracting has the contract on this line," Nance says.
Brickey points to all the brush and grasses that are still growing—the land has hardly been clear-cut, nor is it wiped out from herbicides. "The woody stem vegetation gets sprayed, but as you can see, the grass did not get sprayed," Brickey explains. He says that TVA long ago stopped its wide-area spraying and instead only has select herbicide spraying from a man with a backpack using an EPA-approved product. "We typically don't use herbicide in a maintained yard."
Last month, the Knox County Commission passed a resolution that condemned TVA's tree-cutting policies. (City Council passed a similar but much less vehement resolution. You can probably guess which one was authored by Larry Silverstein.) It urges TVA to provide a 60-day notice to residents before cutting any vegetation.
"Two weeks in advance we have someone knocking on doors. If they're not there, we leave behind a door hanger," Brickey says. "It has real people's telephone numbers on it. It rings Michael's hip. If you request for our folks to come back out and talk to you, that's what we'll do. The problem with getting 60 days out is that there are a lot of factors—"
"We don't know what the weather will be like. We don't know if there will be a problem with equipment," Nance says. "And even two weeks out, it's not exact."
TVA's argument that FERC will fine them up to $1 million a day for one tree—a point TVA likes to bring up a lot—is a highly unlikely one, given that FERC has only issued $2 million total in fines over the past several years for vegetation-related issues. Brickey says that doesn't matter.
"Why do we need a fine to be proactive?" Brickey asks. "Why do we have to have an outage or an accident—why do we need those types of things to occur to make sure things are safe and reliable? If that happens, if an accident happens and someone dies, everyone's going to be asking, ‘Why did you let any trees grow on your easement? Why didn't you clear the whole thing?'"
"Look at other utilities," Nance says. "I think you'll find that we have the most lenient or almost the most lenient policy of any of our competitors."
"We understand how important landscaping is," Brickey adds. "We're not trying to be mean at all."
In fact, TVA's vegetation management policies seem about on par with its peers. Duke Energy and Georgia Power both maintain a 15-foot height limit for permissible vegetation, while Florida state law mandates a 14-foot height. And while NERC regulations don't require TVA to clear the width of the easement, the 2004 FERC report that led to NERC adopting FAC-003-1 urges transmission owners to "fully exercise their easement rights for vegetation management."
Still, since it will take TVA another two years just to clear the easements in the Knoxville area, it's unlikely the controversy over its tree-cutting policies will die down soon. And that's a point both Silverstein and TVA really want to get across—if you live anywhere near a transmission line, anywhere in Knoxville, your vegetation is not safe.
As to whether that vegetation actually affects your safety—well, the answer depends on which side you are on. Silverstein, Van Meter, and others have been in contact with Tennessee's congressional delegation, hoping some federal pressure might get TVA to relent on its all-encompassing policy. Rep. John Duncan has come the closest to taking a stand; in a statement issued last week he says, "My office has received numerous calls from people concerned about TVA's tree removal policy. I share some of those concerns and believe the policy may be excessive. I spoke with TVA President Tom Kilgore and asked him to carefully consider the current policy and to put forth an honest effort to find some middle ground with upset homeowners."
Sen. Lamar Alexander's office says he "is forwarding to TVA the concerns of homeowners, to determine whether adjustments can be made in its tree-cutting policy," while Sen. Corker says, "We're talking with our constituents and with TVA, and we understand both sides. On the one hand, homeowners want to protect the value and privacy of their homes. On the other, TVA has a responsibility to ensure that while providing reliable power, they protect the safety of citizens."
Mayor Madeline Rogero says she supports the City Council's resolution, which calls on TVA to "carefully monitor its Right-of-Way Vegetation Management Program to cut as few trees as possible," but she admits, "I don't control TVA." Rogero does say that there will be more trees in the city by the time she leaves office than there were before, but she's unwilling to commit to more public-private compromises like the one that helped Summit Medical plant laurels to replace the cypresses that were chopped down.
"We'll evaluate each circumstance as it come up," Rogero says.
David Brace, the city's director of public service, says the city is always available as a resource, but he hopes one thing the controversy brings to light is the importance of planting the right trees in the right location.
"What we promote in the city is good tree planting," Brace says.
But all the public comment, all the petitions—they still aren't enough for Silverstein. Out at Westminster Place, he points to pink flag after pink flag, sounding increasingly distressed as he moves around the neighborhood. "I'm 5'10" and this is barely taller than me," he says, standing next to a sapling scarcely the width of his wrist. "Can you imagine they say that these have to come down? This is ludicrous. This is insanity."
Silverstein picks up speed as he talks, wringing his hands at the thought of this or that tree coming down. He takes it personally, this battle against TVA, the quest to save as many trees as he can.
"This is all I work on all day, and all night," Silverstein says. "I don't think it's too farfetched to say it's two million trees they will cut down. I will do anything I can to help."