26 Jan 2010

Farm couple sorry about blackout, but defend actions

10:03 pm on 26 January 2010

A Waikato farming couple whose standoff with Transpower over high voltage lines led to a major power cut have defended their actions, but apologised for the blackout.

An estimated 70,000 customers from Huntly to Northland in the upper North Island were without power for four hours on Monday after trees beneath two transmission lines on the Matangi farm caught fire.

Stephen and Delia Meier have been involved in a five-year dispute with the national grid operator over access.

Police were called to the farm after Transpower claimed its crews were being prevented from entering the property to carry out repairs.

Mr Meier says armed police escorted workers onto the property, took away 11 firearms and his licence, and treated him roughly.

Police said the firearms were taken as a precautionary measure, because the landowner's behaviour gave them cause for concern. Under the Arms Act, police can seize firearms if they suspect an offence has been committed, or is about to be.

In a statement on Tuesday, Stephen and Delia Meier say they have always allowed tree trimming on their property - provided that legal requirements are met by Transpower.

The couple say they are disappointed that an obvious routine maintenance work item was neglected to the point where thousands of New Zealanders lost power.

The Meiers say they resent any attempts by Transpower to portray them as irresponsible and uncooperative.

However, Transpower says it has been trying for more than 18 months to trim the trees, but its workers have not felt safe about going on Mr Meier's property.

Farmer supported

Federated Farmers believes Mr Meier has done nothing wrong.

Its president, Stew Wadey, says he understands that Mr Meier's guns were only taken as a precaution, and police did not take issue with their condition or how they were stored.

Meanwhile, a group of South Island farmers say they have empathy for Mr Meier's situation.

Jeremy Talbot, of the South Canterbury Transpower Group, has also been involved in a long-running access dispute with Transpower.

Mr Talbot says the group's biggest issue is about who is liable, should a lines worker be injured while working on one of their farms.

Transpower is supposed to give landowners ample notice about maintenance work but it never does, he says.

However, Transpower chief executive Patrick Strange says it is very unusual for a farmer not to cooperate with the company.

Dr Strange told Checkpoint that the lines can be disruptive to some farming operation.

"Certainly, in South Canterbury these lines have been there for a long time, but probably do have more impact on farming operations now with pivot irrigators (and) very big cropping machines.

"There's an increasing feeling from some of them that they should be paid some sort of rental, even though we have the right of access."

Dr Strange says Federated Farmers needs to take up the issue of compensation with the Government.

Review of act may be needed - Trustpower

Transpower chairman Wayne Brown believes a review of the Electricity Act may be needed to safeguard the security of power lines.

Mr Brown says gaining access to Mr Meier's farm to maintain the lines has been problematic, and the current law does not give Transpower workers unfettered right to enter the property.

In other countries, utility companies have the right to maintain essential services, he says.

Mr Brown says a review of the law could also address the growing problem of building and other activities allowed under major transmission lines.

He says a major power cut in the north in October last year was caused by a forklift touching overhead lines in Auckland in an area that should just be a power corridor.