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Verizon Agrees To Stop Using Creosote-Treated Poles

Aug 2, 2003 | Times Argus Telecommunications giant Verizon has agreed to stop placing creosote-preserved poles in Vermont, ending nearly three years of negotiations with local utilities and labor unions who alleged the poles posed serious health risks to their workers.

In a 10-page stipulation released by the state Public Service Department last week, Verizon settled with two local chapters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, as well as with utilities Central Vermont Public Service Corp. and Green Mountain Power.

Verizon agreed to switch to poles treated with different preservatives and said it will also remove any existing creosote poles determined to be unsafe — those that are wet, dripping or bleeding creosote.

The company can still use creosote poles in certain rare circumstances, such as for emergency repairs or when no other poles are available through distributors.

Creosote is a byproduct of wood and coal burning and used to preserve wood against rot. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, exposure to high levels of coal-tar creosote can cause a variety of health problems from skin rashes to kidney and liver disorders as well as increase cancer risk.

Utility technicians can come into contact with creosote when climbing on and servicing the poles. The ATSDR says creosote can also leech into groundwater, where its effects are currently unknown.

Verizon’s placement of creosote-treated poles in Vermont has led to many complaints from the technicians who climb them, according to Stephen Costello, a spokesman for Central Vermont Public Service Corp. CVPS was a party to the settlement.

“We were having workers come in with creosote on their clothes. They had skin burns and were working on poles with dripping or wet creosote,” Costello said. “Our first concern was to see that the safety of the workers was protected. This has caused a lot of concern for our employees and we hope this is resolved now once and for all.”

Telephone and electric utilities in Vermont share the responsibility of placing and maintaining poles, and use other companies’ poles for a fee. CVPS said they only place poles preserved with pentachlorophenol, and many of its workers were upset at having to service lines on Verizon’s new creosote poles.

“What this settlement will do is require Verizon to remove the most problematic poles in the area,” Costello said.

Verizon spokeswoman Beth Fastiggi said the negotiating process was a long one, but marked by cooperation.

“It was a long process, but that was largely because there were so many parties,” she said. “But it was a cooperative effort and we are glad we could work to come up with a reasonable solution.”

Verizon will shift to pentachlorophenol (penta) or copper napthenate poles for any future installations, and will replace any poles that have been recently erected but not yet strung with wires.

The shift to penta poles, however, may also bring health risks.

A lawsuit filed recently by the national environmental group “Beyond Pesticides,” and joined by the Communication Workers of America, alleges that the Environmental Protection Agency has known and ignored the health risks of penta and creosote for years.

Penta, a pesticide which doubles as a wood preservative, can cause high fevers, organ damage and even death at high levels of exposure, according to the ATSDR.

The lawsuit alleges that the EPA “has overwhelming data on the effects on these preservatives both on workers’ health and the environment, but has failed to act.”

Costello said his workers have never experienced adverse effects from penta-treated poles.

“We’ve been following that case” he said. “We’ve used these poles for decades without any problems. They have good, long retention.”

No long-term adverse effects from copper-napthenate poles have been reported.

Fastiggi said Verizon disagrees with many of Beyond Pesticide’s arguments against penta poles.

She said the energy costs and environmental impact of manufacturing alternative poles from materials such as Fiberglas make preserved wood a more reasonable and environmentally responsible choice.

Fiberglas poles, she said, are approximately three times more expensive than the $200 to $300 price tag for penta or creosote poles.

Fastiggi said her company follows the lead and the regulations of the EPA, which she says has shown “no environmental or human risk” from penta poles.

“If the EPA says it is safe, we will go ahead and use it, following their regulations,” she said. “If they modify their regulations we will modify our use.”

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