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    Power line plan cuts into fragile Highlands, DEP scrutiny sought

    PSE&G seeks exemption for $650M project
    Wednesday, November 19, 2008
    Star-Ledger Staff

    The $650 million, 45-mile power line proposed for North Jersey will cut through some of the state's most environmentally sensitive lands and will need careful state scrutiny, environmental groups said yesterday.

    The organizations called on the state Department of Environmental Protection to ensure the project meets the requirements of the 2004 Highlands Act, which aims to protect the vast, environmentally sensitive region.


    "This is the first project of this scope and size that will cut through" the Highlands, said Mark Zakutansky, campaign and grassroots coordinator of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition. "DEP will have to decide if it's consistent with the goals and purposes of the act."

    The 2004 Highlands Act severely restricted development in a 1,250-square-mile region that spans 88 towns in Bergen, Passaic, Morris, Sussex, Warren, Somerset and Hunterdon counties. The area provides drinking water to more than half the state's population.

    PSE&G applied for an exemption to the act in September, said company spokeswoman Karen Johnson. It believes it is eligible for an exception under the provision that exempts projects involving the rehabilitation, repair or upgrade of public utility lines, "provided that the activity is consistent with the goals and purposes of the Highlands Act."

    PSE&G plans to build a 500-kilovolt line from Hardwick in Warren County, through Sussex and Morris counties, to Roseland in Essex County. The company said the line is critical to preventing electrical overloads and blackouts in northern New Jersey.

    "In enacting the Highlands Protection Act, the Legislature and governor clearly and explicitly recognized the need for public utilities to maintain and upgrade transmission delivery systems in the Highlands region," Johnson said in a statement. She said the company planned to "make great efforts to minimize any impact on the environment as we construct this line. We believe our Highlands (exemption) application meets the statutory test and look forward to the decision of NJDEP."

    The project includes installing 180- to 190-foot towers, about twice the height of what is along the route now, to accommodate the existing 230-kilovolt line and the new 500-kilovolt one. That route follows existing power lines that run through the heart of New Jersey's Highlands region.

    Environmentalists argue the line and towers will harm the Highlands' scenic areas and the construction will disturb environmentally sensitive areas and animal habitats.

    "Cutting this power line through is going to be a major scar on this landscape," said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. "The 200-foot towers will be visible from all over the Highlands."

    A public comment on the exemption review is scheduled to open today, said DEP spokeswoman Karen Hershey. If the project is exempt from the Highlands Act, it still would require other land use permits, she said.

    "If it's not subject to Highlands laws, it wouldn't mean it doesn't need approvals," Hershey said. "It would have to work with the DEP to see if other approvals are necessary."

    The groups have asked that the state Highlands Council, which oversees the act's implementation, review PSE&G's application. Hershey noted that the Highlands Council will receive a copy of PSE&G's exemption application, as is the case with all exemptions.

    "They have the opportunity to review and provide input in the review process," Hershey said.

    Eileen Swan, executive director of the Highlands Council, said the council was keeping track of the project, and planned to review the exemption application. Swan noted that while the DEP would make a determination about the project in the part of the Highlands deemed the preservation area, the Highlands Council would be looking at its impact in the rest of the Highlands region, called the planning area.

    Kristen Alloway may be reached at (973) 539-7910 or kalloway@starledger.com.

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