Highlands Coalition takes action against PSE&G's power line plan

By BRUCE A. SCRUTON

bscruton@njherald.com

The New Jersey Highlands Coalition has strongly objected to plans for a power line which would go through the Highlands, an area the state says requires special protection because it is the source of drinking water for the very people the new 500-kilovolt transmission line is being built to serve.

The letter from the environmental groups is directed to the state Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Watershed Management which will determine if Public Service Electric and Gas should be granted an exemption from the rigid rules affecting the Highlands.

Known as a Highlands Applicability Determination, the request applies to nearly anyone wanting to do any project within the area, from a homeowner up to a major developer. The law that set up the Highlands protection and planning areas does allow utility companies to service and upgrade transmission lines through the area and exempts them from many of the regulations.

The Highlands Coalition, however, asserts that the scope of this project, which would involve building nearly 40 towers over about 26 miles with access roads, as well as a major switching station in Jefferson Township, goes beyond what the Legislature envisioned as an upgrade and requires a thorough study.

On Thursday, PSE&G made a presentation to the Highlands Council, which will makes its own recommendation to the DEP about the Highlands Applicability Determination. That vote could come at the council's meeting next month.

A public comment period on the application closed on Thursday. A request by the coalition for an extension was rejected by the DEP and the department also rejected a request for a public hearing on the utility's application.

The coalition's comments are contained in a letter with 28-pages of objections raised by specific sections of the Regional Master Plan for the Highlands area as well as parts of the Highlands Act.

The main objection raised in point after point is that PSE&G's application is incomplete.

"At all of the public workshops to date, representatives from PSE&G have told the public that the engineering and site design of the project is only 20-30 percent complete," the coalition's letter says.

PSE&G spokeswoman Karen Johnson said the project, despite its size, "fits the criteria as an upgrade," and added "We're confident (the project) meets the exemption requirements of the act. The Highlands act does not specify a size."

As to the completeness of the application, she noted "DEP deemed it complete, otherwise they would have returned it to us for more information."

The coalition's concerns center on access roads to get to the tower construction sites and what it claims are a lack of detailed plans for the exact routes of those roads.

Johnson said siting of the roads is ongoing because in meetings with municipal officials and homeowners, there have been requests to tweak the routes. "We have also had some requests to make the roads permanent, which changes how the roads are constructed," she noted.

The roads will be built in such a way that they can easily be de-constructed, by using landscape fabric and various grades of crushed road. While the company says that makes them "temporary," critics say that the simple act of cutting trees creates a "permanent scar" on the land.

Other than the transmission line, which crosses the Delaware River from Pennsylvania in Knowlton and heads to Roseland in Essex County, the other big construction project will be the Jefferson switching station.

Located on more than 20 acres, the station will be at the intersection of two major transmission lines -- the one being built and an existing 500-kV line which runs more north-to-south.

One of the reasons behind the new line is to bring reliability to the power grid by creating additional routes. The Jefferson station creates a place where electricity can be rerouted.

The coalition claims 7.7 acres of the site will have "impervious cover," much above the percentage allowed under Highland rules.

Johnson said much of that area will be covered with crushed road, which the company believes will allow water to seep through.

Staff at the Highlands Council is expected to have their recommendations ready for public comment by the end of the year, then a final recommendation will be readied for the council to vote on.

DEP's decision on whether to grant the Highlands Applicability Determination is expected to come in March.

If the determination is not granted, then PSE&G will have to go through the full permitting process under Highland regulations, which will take much longer.

This process is separate from the permitting process on the project from the state Board of Public Utilities.

Johnson said PSE&G expects to file with the BPU in early January.

The timetable for the project anticipates construction beginning in late 2009 or early 2010 with competition sometime in 2012.