Tonye Princewill

July 27, 2012

Power line executions (2)

Power line executions (2)

By Tonye Princewill
MUCH of what it takes is common knowledge, particularly to power sector personnel, political leaders and affected public officials at various levels of government.

The enforcement of ordinances and codes pertaining to the utilization of space underneath power transmission lines, is the obvious starting point.

These rules are not popular and their enforcement tends to generate political friction and controversy.

One reason is that illicit occupants and users of space near power lines are usually either oblivious or indifferent to the possible consequences.

Another is the fact that transgressors are, more often than not, economic climbers and disadvantaged individuals—to whom the enforcement of such regulations seems oppressive.

Added to this is the “C-Factor”. In many jurisdictions, a symbiosis has developed between corrupt power line officials and those who inhabit or use space that is legally off-limits.

The transgressors apparently are, for PHCN officials and other like-minded actors, a regular and reliable source of bribes. Enforcing the codes and ordinances would, therefore, threaten the income of these avaricious interests.

Making headway, through this thick undergrowth of intertwined interests, requires a very high degree of determination and focus. One notable instance of this is the cutting-edge reforms of the Amaechi administration in Rivers State.

Determined to sanitize Port Harcourt’s building regulations as it applied to power lines, the State Government acted very decisively. It demolished illegal buildings and fences in both socially decayed and elite areas of the city–including some structures belonging to members of the Governor’s own cabinet!

This, precisely, is the approach needed–where it is applicable–to the problem of illicit use of space underneath power conducting lines. Instead, I am fearful that Peter’s approach is typical of the kind of leadership we have been getting from PHCN, in particular, and public safety administrators generally.

According to The Punch, Peters complained that PHCN has expended a lot of resources “enlightening the public on the dangers of the infringement and has even had to make a report on the floor of the Oyo State House of Assembly on the issue in the past; all to no avail”.

This is curious because, by his own admission, in the same report, the law requires individuals to keep specified distances from the lines. I believe it is incumbent upon PHCN to do much more. When all else fails, it should ask government to demolish encroaching structures and arrest habitual transgressors.

This approach, of course, has its limitation. It is not applicable or feasible in every instance. In some cases, the power lines may need to be re-routed, to circumvent highly populated areas. The physical security of residents will more than justify the added expense.

As a matter of policy, I believe government should look very carefully at the use of un-insulated wires for transmitting electrical power in populated areas and that the legislature should hold hearing on the issue. An alternative is needed to stringing high-tension and naked low-tension wires over urban areas.

I am aware that insulation causes high-tension wires to overheat. But low-voltage wires–especially drop lines, which carry current to residential areas–can and should be insulated. In short, the legislature needs to outlaw naked power lines within town and city boundaries.

The National Assembly should also require that high-tension wires be kept completely out of urban areas. This can be achieved through the use of drop (or “step-down”) lines to collect power from outlying high-tension conductors and relay it to population centres.

In the eastern U.S.A., for example, power lines in urban and residential areas have long been insulated. Increasingly, insulated low-voltage wires are run underground in populated areas, rather than being strung overhead on electrical poles.

The feasibility of adopting these safety measures here, even though we are not an advanced manufacturing country, ought to be explored. It seems to me, that importing insulated lines would make much more sense than to continue to execute our people by bringing in naked wires.

There is also the possibility that the magnetism emanating from high-tension power lines could have an adverse effect on individuals living in close proximity to them. This issue is being hotly debated; and the jury is still out.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that a 1998 study of the incidence of childhood leukemia, conducted by an “expert working group” of the American National Institute of Health, found that “power line magnetic fields are a possible cause of cancer”.

As a short term expedient, transmission wires in populated areas need to be properly maintained and promptly replaced when found to be defective. Stiff penalties ought to be imposed on obstructing or recalcitrant PHCN officials and any other administrator who actions threaten public safety. In a time when power privatisation is a hot topic, our position on this will need to be defined. Transmission as far as I know remains a federal responsibility. This may change in the not too distant future and so potential custodians of this responsibility need to be educated on this reality. Current methods will no longer sustain.