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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?

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.

art daughtry April 03, 2012 at 12:24 PM
Of course the atorney's for the towns blew thru those funds and then wanted the towns to start paying. I got the rest of the TC to going along with joining the suit as long as it didn't cost the taxpayers any money and if we were billed we would pull out. Of course a few months later we got a bill which we didn't pay and we walked from the suit. Of course we also gave up the original $450,000 we would have got to stay out of it in the first place. By the way the BoE still could have, and did, work a deal with them regarding Lazar. I see this years budget is currently at 2.3% increase well that $450,000 is just over 2 tax points so if we would have taken the original deal this years tax increase would be 0 due to the $450,000 coming from the power company.
art daughtry April 03, 2012 at 12:43 PM
Now to one of the more stupid facts - Heidi, no one at any level is seriously adressing the EMF safety issues with this project. Montville Township should absolutly base line EMF levels this summer (peak power load thus highest EMF) regardless of any other entity. What I have been trying to push is our BPU forcing this throught the state. The only conclusion I can draw is politicians and the power company don't want the added complaints if EMF levels are higher after the line is built. While I completely understand the need for the line I also would want our citizens to know the truth and to develop a better understanding of EMF rather than stick our heads in the sand. If you and others can convince the TC to go forward there should be documented test procedures and historical data. Most important is to base line the current EMF levels under and around the transmission line. Also don't be fooled by any statements from the BPU that they have this info. I was told that while I was on the TC and asked for the info and you know what I got! As long as anyone interested keeps the discussion professional I will go with any citizen/s to a TC meeting and again try to get the right thing done. Hope this helps! Regards Art
Heidi Calcagno April 04, 2012 at 02:55 PM
Thanks for all the info, Art. My biggest concern is EMFs, for obvious reasons. But the lines will also be huge and UGLY. Aesthetics and health issues combined should be important to all residents, not just middle school parents; think this won't affect property values? You said in your first post above that "history proved them correct to maximize their payout prior to power company approvals and remove themselves from any law suits against the power company." I think you were referring to Stanhope, not Montville. If every town affected by the transmission line had joined a class action suit instead of taking a settlement from PSE&G, don't you think PSE&G would have been put on the defensive? Instead, they have thrown money at the problem and have now managed to offer the ultimate buyout to the National Park Service. With President Obama's push to fast track the project, there is now little hope. The NJ/PA electrical unions are pressing hard for job creation, which ironically, may be brought in from other states. The purpose of the increased energy grid is to improve NYC's supply, not ours. PSE&G's purchases will get billed to rate-payors. From your comments, it sounds like the TC was split but that the real issue was whether or not legal action would cost the taxpayer, right? (BTW, I'm having this conversation on Patch instead of calling you privately because there are many people who would like to understand better.) Thanks!
art daughtry April 04, 2012 at 07:23 PM
Hi Heidi Thanks for your kind words. At this point all that is left that is very important to the citizens is to properly base line EMF. You are right Stanhope took the money in the very beginning which maximized their payout. Montville got zip and the line is going through. And you are also correct the TC, while I was on, was split with myself not wanting to spend money on a law suit we had no hope of winning. I do appreciate we are on opposite sides of this issue, however the reality is that towns and even the National Park Service could have been over ruled by both Washington and the Power Co's. By the way the Roseland sub station transformers are already in place. I'm now a consultant again and no longer own AC Daughtry Security so now should I put a proposal in front of the TC to do the baseline for the township? (Dan stop laughing) Regards, Art
StopPATH April 04, 2012 at 09:35 PM
The NPS cannot be overruled by the power companies. NEPA is a federal law. Investor-owned corporations have no power except that which occurs behind closed doors in Washington with lobbyists and public officials on the take. All the money that PSE&G (or other power company) is throwing around to get their way and shut people up and discourage them from fighting the project isn't PSE&G's money. It's YOUR money! New transmission projects are paid for through a federal ratemaking process that may include profitable incentives. In the case of the S-R line, all project costs (to include any money paid out as "mitigation" or "remediation" or "damages" or whatever the power companies want to call it ) is wrapped into the cost of the project. The power company's investment in the project (the money they spend) is repaid to them by 61 million electric consumers in 13 states and the District of Columbia over the useful life of the project (50 - 70 years). Each year, the power company receives a small percentage of depreciation on accumulated project assets in the rate base, plus a return (or interest) on the remaining balance. S-R earns 12.93% yearly on the unpaid balance of the project. We will all be paying PSE&G's stockholders 12.93% interest on their investment in the project for many years to come. The more money they spend now, the higher their ultimate profit. Buying off entities opposing the project is very profitable for PSE&G.

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