Utility workers say poles treated with excess creosote

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(Host) State regulators are investigating complaints from utility workers about a toxic chemical that’s used to treat telephone poles. The investigation by the Public Service Board follows a dispute between Verizon Vermont and the union that represents line workers.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Telephone poles are treated with creosote, a thick oily liquid made from coal tar. Creosote preserves the wood and can help the pole last 30 years or more.

But the federal government classifies creosote as a likely human carcinogen. George Clain, president of Local 300 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical workers, says it’s nasty stuff to work around.

(Clain) “It’s designed to and will kill any living thing that’s in the ground around the base of that pole. And that’s what it’s supposed to do. Definitely you don’t want to touch it.”

(Dillon) Like the electric utilities, Verizon owns thousands of poles around the state. And often, utilities use Verizon poles to hang electric wires or television cable.

Local 300 has complained for more than a year about poles used by Verizon that the union says are super-saturated with creosote. Clain says the public could also be affected.

(Clain) “You go up there and nail up a lawn sign into one of these poles and you happen to get splattered with this in the eye, you’re going to be hurting badly. We’ve had cases where some of these poles have been set in people’s yards and they can’t even stand the smell of what’s coming off these poles.”

(Dillon) Verizon spokeswoman Beth Fastiggi says creosote is a useful preservative that needs to be handled carefully. She says the company went back to using creosote because it’s safer than other methods of preserving wood.

(Fastiggi) “We’re looking forward to the Public Service Board hearings that we have the opportunity to bring in our experts and explain why our selection is cleaner, safer and better for the environment. We do have a good story to tell and we are happy to have this opportunity to present this information to both the Public Service Board and other interested parties.”

(Dillon) The Verizon spokeswoman says the union complaints started when it acquired a batch of poles that were apparently over-saturated with the chemical. She says the problem has since been addressed. The Public Service Board will hold a hearing on the issue next week.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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