Transparency lacking in Highlands Council power line decision

by Scott Olson

As an environmental advocate and elected official whose constituents will be deeply affected by the green-lighting of PSE&G’s Susquehanna-Roseland power line project, I am concerned by the direction the Highlands Council and its staff have taken with the recent consistency determination for PSE&G’s proposal.

I believe their finding of consistency with the Regional Master Plan sets a dangerous precedent in this sensitive region of our state, and I believe Gov. Corzine must take the necessary steps to right this terrible wrong.

The consistency process lacked transparency and accountability. The staff’s synopsis of extensive public comment was generalized and sterilized into a tidy 8-page report. Some of the most serious deficiencies presented by objectors were glossed over or missing. Many of the positive comments came from PSE&G’s own employees or retired employees, or a PSE&G-generated form letter. To make an informed decision, the council should have been given all comments in their proper context.

One must question the staff’s decision, without council input, to negotiate for money in lieu of a determination of inconsistency. It is unconscionable that $18.6 million and a “conceptual plan for mitigation” turned December’s finding of major inconsistencies into May’s determination of consistency.

The council’s authority to accept monetary mitigation is unclear – methods and procedures for such are not described anywhere in the RMP’s goals, policies and objectives.

In PSE&G’s own words, this creates a “new fund established specifically for the purposes of acquiring critical lands, supporting preservation, conservation and stewardship… enhancing the Highlands Region related to the Project.”

This process – created from whole cloth by council’s staff, without input or consent of the council itself and no public discussion – for all intents and purposes places a  “For Sale” sign on critical Highlands’ resources.

It is unimaginable that any elected official believing in open and transparent government could approve this unvetted process. Yet five of the eight affirmative votes on June 25 – including Sussex Freeholder Director Glen Vetrano and Morris Freeholder Jack Schrier – came from current or former elected officials.

I spent two years as a member of Byram’s Land Use Board. If an applicant came to me proposing a monetary payment prior to hearings, it would be called a bribe. This applicant – a major corporation wielding influence in our state – did so in an application before the Highlands Council, and it was welcomed as part of a determination of consistency. Real or perceived, PSE&G’s proposal is being seen by the public as a special interest payoff to buy a development approval. Gov. Corzine’s opponent in the upcoming gubernatorial race has sent people to jail for less.

If monetary mitigation were to be allowed, it should occur only after a determination of inconsistency by the council, and at the request of DEP through established protocol. The council staff’s reliance on a concept plan and unwritten policies and procedures – many to be decided after council approval – is simply bad governance.

PSE&G’s Comprehensive Management Plan, financed by a sizable amount of ratepayers’ dollars, only adds fancy decoration to what remains a terribly destructive proposal. The extreme promises in this plan point out the extreme nature of the negative environmental impacts of this project. The plan does not guarantee to resolve or mitigate these negative impacts, using of soft words such as “shall,” “may,” and “should” throughout in describing mitigation measures, suggesting these will merely be paper plans, and never adequately implemented or enforced.

Finally, the proposed Hopatcong switching station is new construction, not a simple “upgrade” of equipment or expansion of an existing facility. It involves clearing of forested lands and construction of new, permanent access roads. The council should have required it be removed from this application.

Determination of the need for this project is the purview of the Board of Public Utilities, not DEP or the Highlands Council. PSE&G has not shown the need. The project is strictly profit-motivated – unnecessarily creating major construction disturbances that will negatively impact this region for decades. The Highlands Council neglected its responsibility to use all available resources to assure that all options had been exhausted before considering any expansion and associated disturbances.

While it may be a difficult decision in an election year, in the interests of honesty and openness in government, protection of the region’s threatened natural resources, implementation of clean energy goals, and the dangerous precedent that this action sets, I strongly urge Gov. Corzine to veto the minutes of the June 25th Highlands Council meeting and send this improper decision back to the Highlands Council with an admonishment to “get it right” this time.

Scott Olson is a councilman and deputy mayor of Byram Township.

Related: N.J. environmental coalition asking Gov. Corzine to veto plan for Highlands power line (Star-Ledger)

Posted by Green Jersey on July 27th, 2009 | Filed in Uncategorized |

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