Friday, December 6, 2013
NStar disrespects democracy

The decision by NStar — or better put, the larger corporate conglomerate Northeast Utilities — to resume spraying herbicides on rights-of-way across the Cape and Martha's Vineyard is more than a slap in the face of our communities. It disrespects democracy.

I understand that this utility has the legal right to spray chemicals under its lines. I know that reliable electricity is crucial to the wellbeing of us all. And I hasten to add that I am no biochemist or epidemiologist, and cannot say for a fact that spraying herbicides on top of our sole-source aquifer harms our water supplies and our health.

But I know that town by town, board by board, meeting by meeting, ballot by ballot, the people of the Cape and Islands have said the same thing: NStar, let's find alternatives to spraying chemicals in our communities.

And I know that in venues public and private, in hearings and conversations at the Statehouse as well as in direct, sometimes blunt conversations out of the limelight, utility executives have heard the same message not just from me, but from other members of our legislative delegation as well as town and county leaders: NStar, let's find alternatives to spraying chemicals in our communities.

Instead, the company has ignored those requests. In doing so, it has set itself up as an example of a corporation that does not understand what it means to be socially responsible, or how to act as a good neighbor to the communities it serves and profits from.

All of us were encouraged by several years of hiatus from spraying, during which we hoped that approaches new and old — clearing ground by hand, planting low vegetation, even bringing voracious goats onto the scene — would move us past this controversy.

But now many have come to believe that the real reason NStar held off spraying was because they feared public outcry might interrupt their acquisition by Northeast Utilities. Once that hurdle was cleared, they reverted to form.

Many of our towns and the county are willing to contribute people power, expertise, and funding to find better ways. We know that NStar is only one of many users of chemicals in our environment, accounting for only a small fraction of the total use. But we also understand that they are the largest single user. We know that their activities cross town lines, touching many backyards. And we are certain that if they come up with sensible alternatives it will encourage change for public and private users alike.

Maybe that's part of NStar's problem. Perhaps headquarters is concerned that if they show real leadership and find other ways to keep their Cape and Islands lines clear, communities across the state and region will make similar requests — or demands.

Maybe it's simply a matter of short-term profit. While the company has never released a cost analysis of spraying compared to other methods (despite numerous requests), it's likely they are convinced that spraying is the cheapest alternative. And in the end, for the sake of shareholders and the bottom line, that's what matters.

If that's true, then after all the talk and cajoling, votes and resolutions, the only thing that will change NStar's policy would be a response that affects not just reputation, but the bottom line. Does that mean people blocking the sprayers in costly acts of civil disobedience? Or thousands of conscientious customers jeopardizing their credit and service by putting utility bill payments into escrow until this stops?

Usually consumers have one last, powerful way of influencing a corporation: They can stop buying the company's product, whatever it might be.

But of course in this case, that's not true. NStar provides an essential service. They're our electric utility, and they're a monopoly. They know it — and they're acting like it.

Daniel Wolf, D-Harwich, represents most of the Cape and Islands in the Massachusetts Senate.