Column: A Reverse Course on Power Lines
President Obama makes Susquehanna-Roseland project a priority, utilities offer money and NPS says it's OK
The seasaw that is the National Park Service’s approval process for the Susquehanna-Roseland power line upgrade has pushed Public Service Electric and Gas Co. up and environmentalists down.
And it only cost $30 to 40 million.
Last week, the park service reversed a preliminary opinion that the utilities should not do any work on land under its jurisdiction—parts of Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Middle Delaware National Scenic and Recreational River, and Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
Instead, the NPS’s new “preferred alternative” is to give PSE&G and PPL Electric Utilities Corp. their wish and allow them to upgrade the existing 230-kilovolt transmission line, adding 500 kilovolts onto towers that would be as tall as 195 feet.
Not surprisingly, a statement from PSE&G praised the park service.
The utilities say they need to upgrade the aging transmission corridor that starts at the Susquehanna station in Pennsylvania and travels 45 miles through portions of Warren, and Sussex counties, including Hopatcong, and through Boonton Township, East Hanover, Jefferson, Kinnelon, Montville, Parsippany and Rockaway Township in Morris before ending in Roseland. Without the upgrade, power outages are likely, they say.
“We commend the National Park Service for its very thorough review, and for concluding that our proposed route provides the most appropriate balance of meeting society’s energy needs while minimizing impacts to federal lands,” said Ralph LaRossa, president and chief operating officer of PSE&G in a joint statement with PPL.
The statement also discussed finalizing details of “a major land purchase that will benefit the public and the environment.” That’s part of a “mitigation package” the utilities proposed to purchase or preserve thousands of acres of land, estimated at between $30 million and $40 million.
According to the utilities, the mitigation acquisitions would “protect scenic vistas for hikers” and might bridge current gaps of privately owned land to create 500,000 contiguous acres of preserved lands in an area that is among the 10 most visited national parks sites in the nation.
This all sounds good. Environmentalists should want to see more land preserved, no?
The New Jersey Highlands Coalition, Sierra Club and National Parks Conservation Association are among those groups balking.
“This development can only harm visitors’ experience to the parks, many of whom travel from nearby densely populated urban areas seeking inspiring views and outstanding recreational opportunities,” said Ron Tipton of the NPCA. “If the NPS allows 200 foot power lines to degrade these three park sites, what parks will be next? … Meeting energy needs is an important priority, but not at the expense of our national parks.”
New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel was blunter in his criticism, accuding the park service of selling out.
“This is all about the power of money, whether it is coal companies and utilities pushing a power line that will cut through a national park or people standing in line to get mitigation money so that they can profit on the destruction of a National Park’s resources,” he said.
It was surprising last fall when the NPS’s initial opinion, backed by two massive volumes of data and testimony gathered during two years of study, was that the project should not continue because that would cause “the least damage to the biological and physical environment.”
Just four miles of parkland were jeopardizing a project that had received virtually all other approvals. And President Obama had recently announced he was putting Susquehanna-Roseland on a fast track.
The park service held three more public hearings and took comments for two additional months.
And got the mitigation offer.
“In identifying the preferred alternative, we closely examined the existing easements owned by the utilities, the impacts of the proposed transmission line, alternatives to the proposal, and mitigation measures to avoid and minimize adverse impacts to park resources,” said Dennis Reidenbach of the Northeast Region of the NPS last week.
The NPS release also noted that Susquehanna-Roseland is part of Obama’s Rapid Response Team for Transmission pilot project, aka, the fast track, and that the RTTT “is not tasked with conducting the substantive environmental review of any project.”
The decision still isn’t final. The park service expects to issue a final environmental impact statement in September and a final decision on construction permits a month or more later.
But as an Obama priority to create jobs and improve electricity transmission during an election year, and backed by millions in mitigation dollars, it’s unlikely the utilities will be seesawing down again.
Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.
This column appears on Patch sites serving communities in Morris, Somerset and Sussex Counties. Comments below may be by readers of any of those sites.