LA to Pay $1.9 Million for Utility Crew Damage to Endangered Plants

(CN) — The city of Los Angeles agreed to pay nearly $2 million in fines for bulldozing over nine acres of a state park in the Santa Monica Mountains and trampling an endangered plant species while replacing power poles near the affluent coastal neighborhood of Pacific Palisades.

A damaged Braunton’s milkvetch plant lies on the ground in the Topanga State Park. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power damaged nearly 200 of the endangered plants during a power pole replacement project. (Photo courtesy California Coastal Commission)

In March 2019, the LA Department of Water and Power (LADWP) graded fire roads in Topanga State Park to replace 220 wooden power poles north of Will Rogers State Beach.

The utility crews also created 30 short roads and removed coastal sage scrub, chaparral habitat and Braunton’s milkvetch, which is listed as an endangered plant under the federal Endangered Species Act.

A lone hiker notified the utility company via email about the plant’s endangered status. But according to the California Coastal Commission, the same person saw the utility crews moving ahead with the project more than a week later.

A report by commission staff found that in all, 183 Braunton’s milkvetch plants along the Temescal Ridge Trail were damaged during the unpermitted project. The commission became involved because the power pole project was partially in an area it regulates.

“The newly graded roads and widened existing road went directly through coastal chaparral and coastal sage scrub communities — both of which are relatively rare and important ecosystems that support and include a wide variety of coastally important plants, insects, mammals, and birds,” the commission report said.

On Wednesday, the commission approved a cease and desist order and a restoration plan that LADWP agreed to follow. The utility will pay $1.9 million for the violation and perform erosion control, reverse any grading it performed, and replant the area. LADWP will also implement long-term monitoring of the damage it caused.

That damage spread across a wide area and affected 200 of the roughly 2,000 milkvetch plants in the entire area, according to Coastal Commission enforcement analyst Logan Tillema. Tillema showed photos of trampled vegetation and trails widened by bulldozers during a virtual meeting Wednesday.

Under the restoration plan, LADWP will restore nine acres within the coastal zone and 17 acres outside the zone, Tillema said.

While the utility agreed to the terms set by the Coastal Commission, LADWP director of power transmission and distribution Brian Wilbur did not apologize publicly for the damage the crews caused. Instead, he noted the importance of the power lines in the area and how they are the “main arteries” that feed the coastal neighborhoods and upgrading the poles was critical for wildfire safety.

The utility has the difficult task job of upgrading power lines in fire-prone areas with thick vegetation and replacing wooden poles. LADWP will need to apply for a permit with the commission to replace 42 poles within the coastal zone.

“It is crucial that we perform the work that’s needed with a focus on environmental stewardship,” said Wilbur. “The ability for us to work together is a great benefit to both of us. I think we’ve come to a very reasonable conclusion in this part of the violation.”

There was at least some hesitation from Sierra Club member Penny Elia about what the utility has promised it will do with restoration on a long-term scale of the area.

“It appears that protection and preservation of natural resources is always a utility company’s last thought,” said Elia. “It would be wonderful to see an improvement in their grasp of how important their environmental stewardship is.”

She said the restoration process cannot have enough oversight.

There were others who wanted the commission to move ahead with their vote Wednesday so the utility can begin replacing the poles in their neighborhood. Benedict Canyon resident Nicole Miner said it was ironic that the poles were being replaced for better fire management in the area, but the crews inadvertently removed the vegetation around the area during the project.

An email to LADWP for comment on the status of their power pole project was not immediately answered by press time.

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