Power line consistent with the plan

(by Cindy Forrest - July 08, 2009)
Although originally opposed to the project, the Highlands Council last week reversed course and approved an exemption for Public Service Electric & Gas Company’s Susquehanna - Roseland project. The turnabout came after PSE&G submitted a revised application and plans for a $18.6 million “land acquisition and preservation fund” which would be under the control of the Council.

After a presentation of the utility company’s application by Highland’s Council Executive Director Eileen Swan and an extended public comment session, the Council voted 8 to 2 to grant the exemption for power lines to run through 26 miles of the most sensitive water producing land in the state. With the Council’s approval, PSE&G moved its plan to carry coal from northeastern Pennsylvania through 44 miles of New Jersey one step closer to fruition.

The project originated after a 2007 study by PJM Interconnection, an organization that manages the high-voltage electric grid, determined that without an upgrade the existing network would not be able to meet the growing need for power in the region as early as 2012.  The grid in use today was constructed in the 1920s and went online in the 1930s.
Acting on the PJM report, PSE&G last June chose the route along an existing right of way to add 500 kilovolts of power to the 230 kilovolts that currently travel on that path. Part of the process includes raising the transmission towers from the current heights between 70 and 187 feet to a range of 145 feet to 195 feet.       

It is the job of the state Board of Public Utilities to determine whether the $750 million Susquehanna-Roseland project is needed to provide reliable electrical service to residents.

The Highlands Council, on the other hand, was charged with determining if the project is consistent with its Regional Master Plan. The initial application submitted by PSE&G was found to be inconsistent. Then in May the revised application, along with a mitigation plan and a substantial financial benefit, was forwarded to the council.  The mitigation plan included moving the switching station from Jefferson to Hopatcong, and reducing by 11 the number of towers to be constructed.

Public perception
Comments from the public were sharply divided.  On one side stood the business community, focused on jobs and growth.  On the other side stood the environmental community, many of whom fought for years to get the legislature to pass the Highlands Act and assemble a Council charged with protecting and preserving New Jersey’s water resources.  For them the exemption was a betrayal.

“It happened,” said Scott Olsen. “Big business bought off the Highlands Council today. You can quote me on that!”
Deborah Post, a farmer who has been vocal in her opposition to the Highlands law and its effect on landowners, called the money being offered by PSE&G, “the epitome of pay to play.”

Representing the Sierra Club Grace Sica stated, “This application is not consistent with the plan and money can’t make it consistent.”

Julia Somers, executive director of the Highlands Coalition, was adamant.

“The amended application remains overwhelmingly inconsistent with the goals and purposes of the Highlands Act,” she said, “and the comprehensive mitigation plan lacks transparency, is incomplete, flawed and unacceptable.  The $18.6 million payment to the Highlands Council erodes the integrity of the council and establishes a perception that developers can make contributions in exchange for approvals.”

Libby Butler, a resident of the Split Rock Reservoir area of Rockaway Township, was concerned about the harm that could be done by blasting and other tower construction activities.

“What effect will it have on private wells?” she asked.

And Matthew Lally warned the Council, “These towers will scar the Highlands forever. This will be your legacy.”
Council consensus

There was a clear, although uneven, split in thinking by members of the council. Before deliberations began, Tracy Carlucci recused herself because an environmental group that she works with is opposing the PSE&G plan.  Former Parsippany Mayor Mimi Letts also walked away from the vote because a non-profit with which she is involved accepts funding from PSE&G.  

However, Council member Scott Whitenack, who stayed and voted to approve the exemption, did not feel that his work for an electrical contracting company was a conflict of interest.

Fighting against the PSE&G application were Council members Deborah Pasquarelli and Tahesha Way.  Pasquarelli argued passionately about the financial implications of the millions of dollars being offered to the Council calling the perception “a shakedown of a public utility. It's as if we're accepting money for an exemption and consistency determination.”

She also felt the mitigation plan was “overwhelmingly inconsistent” and noted, “The council has lost its way on this one.”

Way questioned, “Why are we making this decision prior to the BPU decision?  And what about the coal; how will that effect air quality?  I’m just not getting the time issue?”

On the other side, Council member Glen Vetrano called Pasquarelli’s statement “hurtful and baseless.”

Vetrano, Whitenack and Council member Janice Kovach all focused on the issue of need rather than consistency.

“This is not a build it and they will come scenario,” said Whitenack. “Commercial businesses are using more and more power.”

Kovach added, ‘This is required for economic development.”

After the meeting Council Chairman John Weingart said that the money that PSE&G added to the deal was a key component.  There were two elements that could not be mitigated, he said, one being scenic impact.

“So if the $18.6 million wasn’t on the table there would be no way to address the issue,” Weingart explained.

Swan noted that there is already a precedent in environmental regulations for mitigation impact to be addressed through financial contributions.

“There was a monetary settlement in the Pinelands project,” she said. And Donald McCloskey, director of air and environmental strategy and policy at PSE&G, said the Department of Environmental Protection approved a "massive” mitigation fund in exchange for approvals for the Salem nuclear power plant.

The next step, according to McCloskey, is for the DEP to consider the recommendation of the Council and make a decision about final approval for the project in the preservation area of the Highlands.  After that the decision as to the need for additional power is in the hands of BPU. That decision is expected to be rendered before the end of the year.

Cindy Forrest can be contacted at: forrestc@northjersey.com.


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