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Upshur Rural Co-op mulls Lake O' Pines power line changes after Scouts' deaths

Jo Lee Ferguson

By Jo Lee Ferguson
Jan. 11, 2018 at 12:11 a.m.

Powerlines cross Lake O' the Pines at Alley Creek Monday, August 7, 2017, near the location were three Boy Scouts where electrocuted when the mast of their sailboat struck one of the powerlines Saturday. (Les Hassell/News-Journal Photo)

Upshur Rural Electric Cooperative says it's premature to discuss what steps might be taken regarding power lines over waterways after the August deaths of three Boys Scouts who were sailing on Lake O' the Pines.

Will Brannon, 17, Heath Faucheaux, 16, and Thomas Larry, 11, died after the topsail mast of the sailboat they were in hit a power line at the lake. The boys were members of Hallsville's Troop 620 and were camping at the lake with the troop.

Susan Erickson, an attorney who was hired by the electric cooperative to coordinate communication about the accident, said the organization has "engaged a number of engineers" who continue to investigate the incident and complete studies by water, land and air regarding lines over Lake O' the Pines and other waterways.

No decisions have been made, she said. The cooperative owns the power line involved in the accident.

"I know the Upshur Rural Electric Cooperative is working with (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Lake O' the Pines manager) to make some decisions," she said. "It's premature to issue a statement at this time as to what will be done, but I do know that is an issue under review and the appropriate experts have been engaged to look into what should be done in coordination with federal and state agencies."

This week, the News-Journal received notice that the Texas Attorney General's Office agreed with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department's assertion that it could not release its investigative report about the accident to the media.

A letter from the attorney general's office indicates the boys' families or their representatives could receive the report. Each parent would get information about his or her child but would not get information about the other children.

The decision is related to a section of the family code and allegations of "alleged or suspected abuse or neglect."

A spokesman for Texas Parks & Wildlife said this week that no criminal charges would be filed in the incident, based on the recommendation of Marion County District Attorney Angela Smoak. Smoak did not return a phone call seeking comment.

"TPWD has made no specific claim of abuse or neglect of a child. The agency did, however, request and has subsequently received an opinion from the (attorney general) that confirms that ... records should be held confidential due to its definition of 'abuse' a 'physical injury that results in substantial harm to a child,' " said Steve Lightfoot, press office manager for Parks & Wildlife.

The East Texas Area Council of Boy Scouts previously said the catamaran the boys were sailing had a mast that stood about 26.5 feet. Lightfoot said this week that the department's investigation determined the Alley Creek transmission line involved in the accident was 26.8 feet high at its lowest point.

Rules adopted in 1997 for electric power supply lines and communication lines over reservoirs managed by the Corps of Engineers state that lines must have a minimum vertical clearance of 52 feet where sailboats are commonly operated.

However, the regulation only goes into effect if existing lines are being replaced or new ones built. The age of the power line involved in the accident has not been publicly disclosed.

Lightfoot said the Corps of Engineers placed buoys on the water marking the power lines shortly after the incident.

Erickson said there's no timeline for when the investigation would be completed and any changes enacted.

"I think the meetings have been multiphased with various agencies," she said, adding that Upshur Rural Electric would follow any recommendations made as a result.

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