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Las Conchas Fire trial underway

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Attorney Tom Tosdal told jurors in opening statements Thursday morning that the June 2011 Las Conchas Fire, which destroyed dozens of homes as it ripped through 156,000 acres of northern New Mexico wilderness, was caused by negligence on the part of two electric cooperatives.

The trial is taking place before Judge Louis McDonald in Sandoval County District Court and is expected to last six weeks.

Jurors must determine whether the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative and Tri-State Generation and Transmission should be held liable for losses sustained by the more than 300 plaintiffs, which include Jemez and Cochiti pueblos, insurance companies and business and property owners.

The blaze broke out on June 26, 2011, when an aspen tree fell onto a power line maintained by the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative. Plaintiffs’ attorney Tosdal said that Jemez and Tri-State, a cooperative that provides wholesale electric power to Jemez, both failed to adopt the procedures that could have prevented it.

But Al Green, the attorney representing the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative, said the company has a tree-trimming program in place – a procedure he said is similar to that used by most American rural electric cooperatives. He also said that Rural Utility Service audits never found violations, though a 2011 audit reported that the rights of way were in need of improvement.

“The RUS didn’t think we were violating their regulation,” he said.

Tosdal showed several photos of the aspen tree that caused the fire, pointing out conks growing at the base, which he said were an indication that the tree was unhealthy and should have been removed.

Green held that it would have been impossible for company employees walking the right of way to identify the aspen, which had a green canopy, as presenting any hazard.

The tree was near Las Conchas trailhead off N.M. 4 between Los Alamos and Jemez Springs on private property 48 feet from the edge of the 20-foot right of way that the Jemez cooperative was required to maintain under a permit that allowed the line to run through Forest Service land. Green added that even if employees noticed the tree, they still wouldn’t have been able to go onto the private property to remove it.

“There was no agreement and no right, no permission granted for us to go on his property and cut any trees,” Green said.

Jay Sturhahn, representing Tri-State, said that Tri-State does not operate jointly with the Jemez cooperative, and that each of the electric cooperatives it serves operates independently. Although Tosdal said evidence would show jurors that Tri-State did have the power to control the Jemez cooperative’s operations, Sturhahn said there was no reason for Tri-State to add regulations to a utility that was already highly regulated.

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