November 16, 2009

PSE&G line opponents, proponents spar at hearing


NEWARK — Hearings on Public Service Electric and Gas Company's contentious power line upgrade began Monday with utility officials reiterating the dire need for the project and opponents blasting what they say will be environmental, health and cost impacts.

About a dozen lawyers for both sides began making their cases before Joseph Fiordaliso, a New Jersey Board of Public Utilities Commissioner serving as the hearing officer for the $750 million Susquehanna-Roseland project, which would traverse 47 miles in New Jersey, including through portions of Morris County.

Jodi Moskowitz, a PSE&G lawyer, opened the hearing by saying the work — which would add 500-kilovolt lines on towers as tall as 195 feet — "is critical to the future reliability of New Jersey's and the region's power grid."

"This is based on greed, not need," countered Catherine E. Tamasik, an attorney representing seven municipalities — Andover, Byram, East Hanover, Montville, Parsippany, Freedon and Hardwick — that are intervening in the process.PSE&G filed an application with the BPU last January, seeking to be exempted from local zoning rules for its project. The company submitted numerous documents and three public hearings were held.

These hearings are expected to continue through next Tuesday and no public testimony will be taken.

The municipalities, several environmental groups and a citizens' group called Stop the Lines had sought a dismissal of PSE&G's application or delay of the hearings, but Fiordaliso declined to rule on that motion.

"I do not believe allowing the hearing to proceed will result in any harm to the parties . . . I'm not going to penalize the company for continuing to work with the parties throughout the process to try to minimize the impacts of the project," said Fiordaliso, adding the interveners could refile their motion to dismiss at the close of the hearings.

In their motion, the interveners complained that the project's details remain incomplete as PSE&G keeps changing parts of it — most recently stating it has abandoned plans to build a new switching station in East Hanover, but instead wpi;d handle the new lines through a retooled Roseland station.

Answering some of the arguments from the opponents in her opening statement, Moskowitz said electromagnetic fields like those emanating from power lines have not been "established as a cause of any disease or illness." She also said that PJM, which oversees the region's power grid, has reaffirmed the need for the line upgrade for three years in a row and without it, brownouts and blackouts could occur.

"If we continue to wait to begin construction, there will not be enough time to build this reliability project," she said. "Timely BPU action is required."

But Carol Overland, attorney for Stop the Lines, disputed the need.

"This was based on forecasts done many years ago," she said. "Demand has been dropping."

Patrick Tobia, representing the Montville Board of Education, said the EMFs emitted by the new lines near the ball fields at the middle school would be "10 times the recommended exposure limits," and the school district wanted PSE&G to move the lines so that "where these kids play every day will be safe."

"Environmental issues should not be forgotten," added Julia LeMense of the Eastern Environmental Law Center, representing several local environmental organizations that object to the project because of the damage they say it will do the Highlands region, through which they lines would be built.

"Our paramount concern is to keep the lights on," said Steven Goldenberg, representing Exelon Corp., adding the project is crucial to "preventing an ultimately catastrophic cascading system of blackouts and the economic and social toll they would exact."

Most of the testimony focused on the process of siting the project along the existing power line corridor, which crosses from Pennsylvania at the Delaware Water Gap and proceeds through Warren and Sussex Counties. More than half the line would traverse Morris County, through Jefferson, Rockaway Township, Kinnelon, Boonton Township, Montville, Parsippany and East Hanover before ending in Roseland.

Robert Pollock, representing PSE&G, said he does not think the line upgrade would hurt the property values of nearby homes. The utility is still negotiating the modifications of 22 easements but if these cannot be gotten, PSE&G would consider going through the condemnation process.

"Condemnation is always an option where we could not reach a settlement," said Karen Johnson, a PSE&G spokeswoman. "We would need BPU approval on need before proceeding."

The hearings are expected to continue Wednesday in BPU's 8th floor meeting room at 2 Gateway Center, Newark.

Colleen O'Dea can be reached at 973-428-6655 or codea@gannett.com.