Congressman Bob Smith Seeks to Exempt Not-For-Profit Entities from Strict Liability, Strict Liability Threatens Electric Service for Rural Consumers, Increases Power Costs

Apr 30, 1998

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In testimony submitted to the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health Tuesday, Congressman Bob Smith (R-Or), Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, said he will work with the Forest Service on his legislation (H.R. 3187) to reform the strict liability policy as applied to not-for-profit rural electric cooperatives.

Many Western states have not-for-profit cooperatives with power lines that extend through public lands. Under the current Forest Service's strict liability policy, cooperatives are held financially liable for costs resulting from fire even when the cause of the fire is not attributed to them. These costs are ultimately transferred to private citizens and threaten the viability of electric service for rural customers. In February, Smith introduced H.R. 3187, to amend the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which would exempt not-for-profit entities that hold rights-of-way on public lands from certain strict liability requirements.

"In eastern Oregon, the federal government owns well over half of the land. Federal rights-of-way are crucial to bringing electricity to rural communities. These not-for-profit cooperatives overwhelmingly represent the rural areas that are adjacent to our public lands and in many cases serve the electric needs of the Forest Service and BLM," Smith said.

"My legislation removes that strict liability standard in favor of a normal negligence standard that is routinely used in private right-of-way contracts. I am not looking to provide any specific favor for not-for-profit entities. If they are negligent in maintaining our rights-of-way, they should bear the responsibility. By enforcing any standard more rigid than that, however, the Forest Service is purposefully transferring cost to private citizens," Smith said.

"It is my understanding that the Forest Service is opposed to this legislation because they feel this issue can be resolved administratively, and that the use of not-for-profit language in the legislation is too broad. I have spoken with the Forest Service and have agreed to work with them between now and mark-up to see if we can achieve a mutually agreed upon solution," Smith said.

Smith represents Oregon's Second Congressional District - including most of eastern, southern, and central Oregon - in the U.S. House of Representatives.