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Tampa Electric felling trees along Tampa's Al Lopez Park

A stump is all that’s left Monday of a large oak tree that towered alongside Al Lopez Park in Tampa.
A stump is all that’s left Monday of a large oak tree that towered alongside Al Lopez Park in Tampa.
Published Jun. 3, 2014

TAMPA — Dozens of trees, including some big oaks, have been cut down below Tampa Electric power lines alongside Al Lopez Park, provoking complaints from park regulars.

"What you see now is terrible," said Norma Barbon Lobato, 79, a retired Hillsborough County schoolteacher and administrator who has walked 4 miles at the park five days a week since 1991. "It's so sad. It's our Central Park. That's the way we look at it."

Crews working for Tampa Electric have been cutting down or trimming trees along a 1-mile easement between Himes Avenue and the park. From Hillsborough Avenue south to W Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, oaks, palms and other varieties have been cut off a few inches above ground. The smallest had trunks a little bigger than the fat end of a baseball bat. But more than a few were decades old and much more grand.

"We're talking about trunks of trees that are almost a yard wide," Mrs. Lobato said Monday.

The work is being done so that Tampa Electric complies with a newer and stricter set of standards promulgated by the North American Electric Reliability Corp., a not-for-profit regulatory authority whose mission — ensuring the reliability of the continent's bulk power system — is overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The authority, often known as NERC, has operations and maintenance standards aimed at making sure electric utilities prune back and keep trees clear from transmission lines. If Tampa Electric doesn't comply, it can face fines of up to $1 million per day, company spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said.

The focus on trees is a concern with a basis in history. In August 2003, a cascading blackout knocked out power to 50 million people in Ohio, Michigan, the northeastern United States and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

As big as it was, the blackout got its start when three transmission lines supplying the Cleveland-Akron area came into contact with overgrown trees in that utility's right of way, according to a NERC report. As the use of those lines was lost, power flowed onto an underlying network of lower-capacity lines, which also quickly became overloaded. The loss of one final big transmission line into northeastern Ohio created a domino effect of line outages in other states and Canada.

In 2011 and 2012, TECO sent low-flying helicopters to survey areas along its high-voltage power lines and has since been trimming or cutting down trees as needed.

The work next to Al Lopez Park is being done within a 25-foot-wide easement where some trees cannot be trimmed back and therefore must be cut down, Jacobs said. The work must be complete by July 1. Tampa Electric is consulting with the city of Tampa about what kinds of trees it will plant to replace the ones removed, and where.

In any case, Jacobs said, the company doesn't have any choice.

"Trees are an important part of every community," she said. "People love them. We love them. We hate having to remove them. These new standards are driving our actions, and we're obligated to comply."

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, rdanielson@tampabay.com or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.

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