Coalition to Corzine: cancel the consistency vote

(by Cindy Forrest - July 29, 2009)
It’s an election year and the tenuous support of the New Jersey environmental community for Governor Jon Corzine could be won or lost based on his decision about Public Service Electric & Gas Company’s proposal for increased power.

The governor is being called on by the key environmental groups to veto the minutes of the June 25 meeting of the Highlands Council that include the determination of consistency for PSE&G’s Susquehanna-Roseland 500-kv transmission line.

Montville has filed as an intervener to oppose the project.  

In Montville PSE&G is planning to construct approximately 190-foot tall power lines along an existing right of way that runs seven miles through the township, including a stretch that would stand behind the Robert R. Lazar Middle School and ball fields. Montville Mayor Deborah Nielson said that the township’s comments about the lines were going to be submitted in writing to the Board of Public Utilities.

It is the job of the state Board of Public Utilities to determine whether the Susquehanna-Roseland project is needed to provide reliable electrical service to residents.  They expect to make a decision before the end of the year.

In a letter initiated by Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Chapter Sierra Club, and signed by a coalition of 11 organizations, the governor is being asked to take a step that would set back a $750 million project that would carry Pennsylvania coal power across 45 miles in New Jersey through sensitive, water-producing land.

“We strongly believe that the Highlands Council’s decision was wrong and that there were many substantive problems with their action,” said Tittel. “I have never in my career seen such a blatant quid-pro-quo in government.”

The opposition charges conflicts of interest, inconsistencies with the master plan and the violation of clean energy policies as the basis for the governor’s veto.

Originally opposed to the project, the Highlands Council recently reversed course and approved an exemption for the 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 lengthy and often contentious meeting, the Council voted 8 to 2 to grant the exemption for the 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 one step closer to fruition.

The Highlands Council 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.

Last week, the Highlands Council approved the minutes of the meeting in question leaving only the governor to stop the exemption from being finalized.

Viewing the outcome of the request to veto the meeting minutes as a test of Corzine’s commitment to the environment, clean energy and the vital role of the Highland’s region, the letter laid out their case.

Voting questions
Before deliberations began, Tracy Carlucci recused herself because an environmental group with which she works 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, the letter points out that two additional members should have declined to vote. It reads, “Scott Whitenack has worked for Star-Lo Electric in Whippany since 1993. This is an electrical contracting firm that has worked with and for PSE&G. Mr. Whitenack should have recused himself from the vote.

Glen Vetrano’s seat was listed as vacant on the governor’s Web site. He had previously submitted a letter of resignation 10 months ago, has been absent by and large since, yet still arrived at the meeting and voted.”  

The significance of Whitenack and Vetrano’s votes is that without them the measure wou;dn’t have passed since a minimum of eight votes was needed.

Looking a gift horse in the mouth
The letter charges that “the determination appears to have been based not on consistency with the Regional Master Plan, but on an $18.6 million 'gift' from the applicant."

Council member Deborah Pasquarelli raised the same question about ethics prior to the vote.  

In the letter, the environmental community establishes that in December the Highlands Council staff determined that the proposed power line was inconsistent with the Regional Master plan in 56 different places and that the line itself was inconsistent.  The staff then worked with PSE&G on the application, which was resubmitted in May.

“There were very few substantive changes to the application,” the letter states. “We believe during this time the staff, including its executive director, negotiated with PSE&G for an $18.6 million 'gift,' or some may call bribe.  PSE&G has said this money should go to the council for mitigation, including the acquisition of land, and the paying of staff.”"

Council Chairman John Weingart hasn’t denied that the money 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.
Highlands Council Executive Director Eileen Swan pointed out 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.

Still the letter claims, “For everyone watching this application it is clear: conformance with rules and regulations is secondary to an applicant’s ability to donate funds.”

To mitigate or not - that is the question
In the letter Tittel noted, “The Highlands Act does not allow for mitigation.  The act is supposed to enhance, restore and protect the Highlands; not obfuscate, rationalize and give away.”

The enviro’s claim that the project will have negative impacts to many quality of life conditions in the area as well as water quality throughout the state.  And the letter lays out to the governor that the proposed line violates the state plan and the Energy Master Plan in three significant places.

It breaks with the state plan in the areas of energy policy, which prohibits dirty coal power, promoting energy development in environmentally sensitive areas, and violating the special resource designations of the Highlands.

And also breaches the Energy Master Plan, which charges utilities with reducing energy demand 20 percent by 2025.

“The magnitude of PSE&G’s proposal overwhelms all projected increases in demand. PSE&G is proposing replacing the current 230kv line and adding a 500kv line. This would increase transmission capacity from 500MW to an additional 3,000MW.  PSE&G is proposing a 600 percent increase for a 1.4 percent increase in peak energy demand per year,” the letter states.

The energy plan for New Jersey demands shifting the state from an energy consumer to an energy producer by 2020. The vision for accomplishing this goal included wind, biomass, solar, and refuse to account for 22 percent of our energy. The biggest sector of growth in this vision is offshore wind - not coal power.

Finally, the Energy Master Plan required that 30 percent of the state’s energy come from renewable sources by 2025.

“Ratepayers and rate increases are finite resources,” the letter states, “instead of using ratepayer money on importing coal energy PSE&G and state agencies should be pushing utilities to double and triple their efforts in renewable energy and efficiency.”

The need - real or imagined
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.   

Proponents of the line fear rolling brown and blackouts three years down the road and a concern about the impact of unreliable power service on the business community, jobs and growth.

Those opposed deny the need for such a major undertaking and fear the effects of the project on health, property values and quality of life.

A spokesman in the governor’s office said that the letter is still under review and no decisions have been made.
Nine state environmental groups, one public official and a 300-member strong grassroots opposition group signed the letter. Among members of the environmental community the decision made by the governor is major.

"This power line is our line in the sand,” said Tittel at a recent power line hearing in Morris County.   

The selected route by PSE&G last summer begins in Hardwick, Warren County, proceeds east to Andover, Sussex County, and on to Jefferson, Morris County. The route continues east to Montville and then turns south to Roseland, Essex County.

It follows an existing power line for the entire 45-mile length and will pass through 16 municipalities.

Editor’s Note: At press time a message was received from spokesman Robert Corrales that Gov. Corzine will not veto the Highlands Council minutes as requested.  Jeff Tittel responded saying he was disappointed but not surprised. “This proves that the governor doesn’t care about the Highlands or clean energy. We will be looking into legal course,” he said.   

Cindy Forrest can be contacted at:


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