September 6, 2009

State should not let "bribe" stand

Scott Olson

As an environmental advocate and elected official whose constituents will be deeply affected by the green lighting of Public Service Electric & Gas Co.'s power line project, I am concerned by the direction the Highlands Council and its staff have taken on the recent Consistency Determination for PSE&G's proposal.

I believe the finding of consistency with the Regional Master Plan sets a dangerous precedent in this sensitive region of our state, and I believe the state Department of Environmental Protection 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 eight-page report. Some of the most serious deficiencies presented by objectors were glossed over or missing entirely. Many of the positive comments came from PSE&G 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.

I question the staff's decision, without council input, to negotiate for monetary mitigation in lieu of a determination of inconsistency. It is unconscionable that $18.6 million and a "conceptual plan for mitigation" turned last December's finding of major inconsistencies into last 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 regional master plan'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 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 County Freeholder Director Glen Vetrano and Morris County Freeholder Jack Schrier — came from current or former elected officials.

As a member of Byram's Land Use Board for the past two years, it would be inappropriate for an applicant to approach me proposing a monetary payment prior to hearings. This applicant — a major influence-wielding corporation — 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.

If monetary mitigation were to be allowed, it should occur only after a determination of inconsistency by the council, and at the request of the DEP through established protocol.

The DEP must reject this deal and reject the council staff's reliance on a concept plan and unwritten policies and procedures as simply bad governance.

While it may be a difficult decision in an election year, in the interest 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. Jon Corzine to step in and instruct the DEP to send this horrendously improper decision back to the Highlands Council with an admonishment to "get it right" this time.