LAKE WYLIE, S.C. — If your trees are threatening power lines, the electric company can take them down, but while crews are at it, they may also clear everything else around them without your knowledge.
Jim Oliver of Lake Wylie learned that the hard way.
"I was ticked off," Oliver said. "They left me with a mess."
A Duke Energy transmission line runs through Oliver's backyard. He said the company explained to him, for safety and reliability reasons, crews needed to remove five of his larger trees, which he did not oppose. However, he was shocked when he returned from a weekend away to discover crews had cleared hundreds more than they had discussed.
"They had all this cut down," Oliver said as he pointed to the now cleared row of his former woods. "That's not what it was supposed to have been."
Duke Energy spokesperson Logan Kureczka said the utility has a right to trim and clear vegetation along easements and surrounding "danger tree buffer" zones. Oliver's property falls within that zone, but there's something else at play here.
Kureczka said Duke considers anything 5 inches or smaller in diameter in an unmaintained area to be "brush." She said crews will tell you if they plan on cutting down a tree, but you may not get a heads-up about the surrounding "brush."
"It's almost like mowing the grass, so when you're working with heavy machinery in an unmaintained area, it's impossible to not cut down everything else around those five trees," she said.
"Is it reasonable for the customer to expect that everything around those trees is going to be cleared?" WCNC Charlotte asked.
"I think in an unmaintained area, especially (when) we tell them we have heavy-duty machinery, I think it's reasonable to understand that some additional trees would also be cleared," she responded. "But again, if they have questions, they're certainly welcome to ask them or call our customer service line."
Kureczka said crews approached Oliver's case just like they do every other.
"We don't feel like we handled it wrong," she added.
Beyond the company's toll-free number, (800) 777-9898, customers can also complain to regulators. Public records obtained from the North Carolina Utility Commission and South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff identify more than 200 Duke Energy tree-trimming complaints since 2017.
Oliver said he didn't know about that option after crews came through in 2021, so he wrote the company a letter earlier this year instead. He said that complaint came back to his house opened and was marked "Return to Sender."
"They don't even want to talk to you about it," he said.
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Oliver said he doesn't want money, but rather is just asking Duke Energy to plant new, smaller trees to replace the hundreds that were unexpectedly removed from his yard.
Kureczka said the South Carolina homeowner is welcome to reach out with questions.
"Maybe there was a miscommunication there, he didn't understand, but when we're working with that heavy machinery, all of that smaller trees and brush is going to come down with the five trees ..." she said. "It is our priority to keep our transmission lines safe and reliable for the many customers that we serve every day who rely on us for power. We apologize that the customer was inconvenienced by this, but Duke Energy followed full procedure and shared the process with him as we do every customer, giving him plenty of opportunity to ask questions. It’s a year later and there’s nothing in our records to indicate he called us to raise any concerns over the last year."
Oliver said he's since called the customer service line to formally complain. He expects to hear back from Duke Energy's claims department before the holidays.
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