July 31, 2009

Groups may sue over high-voltage PSE&G line approval


Environmental groups are considering a legal challenge to The New Jersey Highlands Council's approval of Public Service Electric & Gas Co.'s transmission line project now that the governor has declined to veto the action.

Last month, the council voted 8-2 to declare consistent with the Highlands regional master plan PSE&G's $750 million plan to add 500-kilovolt lines on towers as high as 195 feet along a 44-mile stretch from Warren County through portions of Morris to Roseland.

A dozen environmental organizations had urged Gov. Jon Corzine to veto the council's action, claiming there were ethical and conflict of interest problems with the vote and that the project violates the Highlands Act. Because the deadline for a veto has passed, the council's action stands.

"Governor Corzine could have done the right thing and invalidated the council's vote, which was an outrageous abuse of power and breach of public trust, but chose not to," NJ Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel said. "Instead, he will let shameful record stand."

Corzine's office did not return a call for comment.

Eileen Swan, the council's executive director, defended its action, saying staff worked with the utility to craft a project that offers the greatest protection possible to the environment.

But Tittel said council staff, which had originally found more than 50 inconsistencies with the master plan, changed its mind after PSE&G agreed to give the council $18.6 million for environmental mitigation and preservation efforts.

"People in Jersey City got arrested for taking $1,000," said Tittel. "This just seems more corrupt than the stuff we saw last week."

Swan said staff changed its mind on the PSE&G application because the utility addressed each of its initial concerns about environmental impacts.

John Weingart, the council's president, said Tittel's characterization was "outrageous," noting the council had held public meetings and took testimony from 400 people and groups on the plan.

"For the Sierra Club to suggest that people cannot have honest disagreements about complex public issues reflects a surprisingly naive and simplistic understanding of democracy," Weingart said.