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Wide range of opponents lining up to contest route of 500,000-volt PPL line

Published: Sunday, October 05, 2008
Updated: Sunday, October 5, 2008 4:16 AM EDT
First in a two-part series

The clearing slices a tidy path through the wooded Pike County landscape, straight as an arrow, wide as a six-lane highway and a few feet from Al Spinelli’s back door.

When the former Long Islander bought his home in the Saw Creek Estates development, he shrugged off the PPL Electric Utilities transmission line at the rear of his property as an unattractive but mostly unconcerning fact of life — 230,000 volts racing between 85-foot-tall towers along a largely barren right of way, close but not too close.

A PPL proposal to replace it with a major, 500,000-volt line has changed all that.

By the end of the year, the Allentown utility will ask the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission for approval to construct a new 99-mile transmission line through Northeast Pennsylvania.

Skeptics are already questioning the need for the 500-kilovolt line, part of a $1.2 billion, multistate project to move electricity from the Susquehanna nuclear plant in Luzerne County’s Salem Twp. to energy-hungry consumers on the mid-Atlantic grid.

Others are almost certain to challenge PPL’s selected route — an arc that follows an existing right of way for most of its length, sweeping northeast past Wilkes-Barre and Scranton to the Hawley area before turning sharply south to the Delaware River near Bushkill.

It is a path that takes the line through the Delaware State Forest and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area — and almost dead-center through the 3,000-home Saw Creek Estates in Lehman Twp.

Mr. Spinelli and his neighbors fret that the new high-voltage line, with its 185-foot-tall towers and 200-foot-wide right of way, will be an aesthetic and environmental blight.

They worry that their property values will plummet.

They fear that long-term exposure to the line’s unseen electromagnetic fields will affect their health.

For Mr. Spinelli, the health questions have taken added urgency with the birth of his first child, Maddox, on Sept. 18. The chalet-style home on Glasgow Drive that he bought in 2000 is one of a number in the development where the utility’s 200-foot right of way ends literally against an exterior wall.

He said PPL experts have tried to reassure him he has no cause for alarm, characterizing studies about the potential adverse health effects of EMFs as inconclusive.

“To me, inconclusive is a very, very scary word,” Mr. Spinelli, 42, said.

The Saw Creek Estates Community Association Inc. has identified 147 homes in the development that will be directly affected by the new transmission line, president Peter Derrenbacher said. Nowhere else along PPL’s proposed route is there such a dense concentration of residential properties so close to the line.

But the indirect effects will be much wider. Mr. Derrenbacher said that on a daily basis, as many as 9,000 Saw Creek residents will drive, walk, work or play under electrical lines strung from towers far higher than the surrounding treetops and visible from almost every corner of the development.

“It’s a community problem,” Mr. Spinelli said. “Saw Creek will become known as the place where the towers are. Realtors will not want to show homes in here. People won’t want to live here.”

Adding insult to injury, Saw Creek residents don’t even get their electricity from PPL. The development is served by Metropolitan Edison Co.

‘A very solid case’

The project is known as the Susquehanna-Roseland Power Line, named for its beginning and ending points — PPL’s Susquehanna substation outside Berwick and Public Service Electric and Gas Co.’s Roseland substation near Livingston, N.J.

Its construction was approved in June 2007 by PJM Interconnection, a Valley Forge-based, regional transmission organization that coordinates the movement of electricity in Pennsylvania and a dozen other states, an area that stretches as far west as Illinois and as far south as North Carolina. About 51 million people — one-sixth of the nation’s population — get their electricity from the PJM system.

PPL will build the Pennsylvania portion of the line at a preliminary estimated cost of $500 million; PSE&G will be responsible for the $650 million, 45-mile section in New Jersey. Customers throughout the PJM territory will pay a share of the construction costs.

PJM maintains the line is necessary to relieve overloads that could happen as early as 2013 on 23 existing transmission lines in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Ultimately, the line will lessen the risk of blackouts like the one that darkened 2.3 million homes and businesses across a wide swath of the Northeast and Midwest in August 2003, PJM spokesman Ray Dotter said.

PPL and PSE&G have set an aggressive timetable, aiming to have the line in service by May 2012.

That doesn’t mean lights will start blinking out if the target is not met, Mr. Dotter said. But a failure to address the predicted overloads increases the likelihood PJM would have to resort to stop-gap measures — such as rotating, controlled blackouts — to keep the greater system up and running.

“If it’s not ready then (in 2013), you have to figure out something else,” Mr. Dotter said. “There are things you can do in the short term to carry you for a little while, but it’s not a long-term solution.”

The present and future necessity of the project, including improved reliability and the needs of the regional system, is one of the key elements PPL will have to demonstrate when it seeks PUC approval to site, build and operate the line.

PPL spokesman Paul Wirth said the utility’s application, which will be submitted to the commission by December, will be thoroughly researched and well documented.

“We have known from the beginning that we need to have a very solid case,” he said.

The state chapter of the Sierra Club contends there is no need for the line, at least not to serve electricity consumers in Pennsylvania. The organization favors the development of renewable energy sources and greater energy conservation and efficiency over new transmission lines.

The bottom line, Sierra Club state director Jeff Schmidt said, is Pennsylvania is a significant net exporter of electricity, producing about 50 percent more than it consumes.

“This is strictly a power line to wheel power out of Pennsylvania to increase PPL’s profits,” he said.

Mr. Dotter dismissed that argument as meaningless — it’s always going to be the case that some states are net exporters of power and some are net importers. He pointed out Pennsylvania is also a net exporter of potato chips, chocolate and innumerable other products.

“The power system is inherently interstate,” Mr. Dotter said.

The proposed PPL line starts, ends and runs for much of its length through the 20th Senatorial District, represented by state Sen. Lisa Baker.

Mrs. Baker has formally asked the state Office of Consumer Advocate to assist her constituents in addressing their concerns about the line. She said PPL will be required “to clearly demonstrate” the need for the project when it goes before the PUC.

“The onus is on them to make the case that it is necessary,” Mrs. Baker said. “That’s why the (PUC review) process will be very important.”

‘Balancing act’

In August, PPL chose the path it is recommending for the transmission line, designated as Route B, over two alternatives. The selection came after a series of 10 public input workshops.

Like Route B, Route A was a northern alternative. It would have followed the same path as Route B from the Susquehanna station to Hawley but then would have continued on a slight east-southeast track, intersecting with the Delaware River near Milford.

Route C was a southern option. It would have run from the Berwick area almost due south into Schuylkill County before cutting east to the Delaware near Martins Creek in Northampton County.

Mr. Wirth said while cost is one of the factors PPL examined, it did not figure prominently in the selection. Because construction will eat up the lion’s share of the project’s cost, he said, the preliminary estimates for all three alternatives “came in about the same.”

Mr. Wirth said PPL’s priority was to choose the route that would minimize the impact on residents and on the environment. From the utility’s perspective, Route B does that more than the other options, mostly because there’s already a power line there.

At the outset of the selection process, PPL mailed explanatory letters to people who owned property within 500 feet of a proposed route — 758 property owners along Route A, 1,522 along Route B and 1,665 along Route C.

Although there are far fewer individual property owners along Route A, that option would have required PPL to acquire and clear 25 miles of new right of way through largely unspoiled forest land in northern Pike County, Mr. Wirth said. Similarly, while the utility already owns right of way along a significant portion of Route C, much of the corridor is still uncleared.

Route B follows the path of an existing 230,000-volt line from Berwick to Bushkill, and thus existing, cleared right of way, for more than 90 percent of its length, Mr. Wirth said. Even where the route splits from the existing line for about 7 miles in the Archbald area, the utility has easements for all but a couple of miles.

As for Route B’s passage through natural areas such as the Delaware State Forest, that “is not going to be as impactful as going through land that has no power line through it,” Mr. Wirth said.

“From the standpoint of minimizing impact, Route B is better because it already has an existing power line. That was the main reason for choosing Route B,” he said.

The Sierra Club’s Mr. Schmidt suggested the selection was a foregone conclusion. He suspects PPL put forward two “straw man alternatives” that the utility knew would draw opposition so it could frame its selection of Route B as the least objectionable.

Not so, Mr. Wirth said. In flatly denying the accusation, he said the utility looked at 100 different route segments in a variety of combinations before deciding on the three options it presented to the public.

But there is no denying the map PJM released for “illustrative” purposes in May 2007, a full year before PPL unveiled the three potential routes, showed the transmission line hewing closely to what would later become known as Route B.

Mr. Dotter insisted it was coincidental the map depicted the route PPL eventually chose.

In devising the early map, PJM engineers knew where the proposed line would begin and end but wanted to illustrate how those points might be connected. It is “not unreasonable” that they decided to follow the path of an existing power line, he said.

“People are going say, ‘Aha! You’ve routed the line,’ which is where we find ourselves now,” Mr. Dotter said. “It illustrates the danger in trying to make something visually understandable.”

U.S. Rep. Chris Carney, D-10, whose congressional district is home to most of the existing line, urged PPL officials in a letter in July to eschew the two northern alternatives and site the line along the southern Route C.

He argued the northern options, and Route A in particular, would negatively affect natural areas in Pike County and the National Park Service-operated Delaware Water Gap recreation area.

In an interview, Mr. Carney said PPL candidly informed him the southern route “probably wasn’t going to occur.” With Route C off the table, he said, it became clear Route B would have the lesser overall impact, even if affected property owners may disagree.

Mr. Carney has asked PPL for a study to determine the “least impactful” route through the Delaware Water Gap, and the park service is cooperating with both PPL and PSE&G on data collection.

The existing line runs just over 4 miles through the recreation area, including 1.6 miles in Pennsylvania, and crosses the Delaware River just north of River Road.

Although park service officials have vowed to make every effort to protect the area’s natural and culture resources, spokeswoman Deb Nordeen said the agency won’t be able to assess the full impact of the line until the utilities submit their proposals for review.

“It’s always a balancing act between protecting the environment and making sure when people flip the switch that the lights come on,” Mr. Carney said. “No one wants to see a power line through their back yard, but you still have to be able to transmit power from point A to point B.”

Upside, downside

There will be virtually no construction required on the first 30 miles of the new line, from Berwick to the Pittston area, Mr. Wirth said. Towers and other infrastructure put in place in the early 1980s, coinciding with the opening of the Susquehanna nuclear plant, were built to handle a 500,000-volt line.

For the next roughly 13 miles to the utility’s Lackawanna substation near Blakely, a new 500-kilovolt line will be built parallel to the existing 230-kilovolt line, which will remain in place.

The new line will then skirt around Archbald to an area east of Peckville, where it will again meet up with the 230-kilovolt line. From there to Lake Wallenpaupack and then south to the Delaware River, a distance of almost 49 miles, PPL will replace the existing towers with new ones that will carry both the 230- and the new 500-kilovolt lines.

Mr. Wirth said PPL will not know how many new towers it will have to erect until the final engineering is completed prior to submission of its application to the PUC. The same goes for the type of towers — they’ll be either monopoles or H-frames, also known as portals.

What is clear is the new towers will be significantly taller than the existing structures — 175 to 185 feet, compared to about 85 feet — and the higher voltage line will require a wider right of way — 200 feet instead of 150 feet.

Even in areas where the line takes a wide berth around residential neighborhoods, people will have little difficulty spotting the towers. From downtown Scranton and north through much of the Midvalley, for instance, the towers will be clearly visible along the western ridgetops.

Although PPL already holds a 200-foot right of way along most of the proposed route, there are perhaps 50 property owners from whom it must negotiate new or wider rights of way, Mr. Wirth said.

The utility intends in any case to meet individually with every property owner immediately along the line to listen to concerns and attempt to minimize the impact of the project, he said.

One of the difficulties at Saw Creek Estates is the development sprang up around the transmission line, not the other way around.

Mr. Wirth said the 230-kilovolt line from Lake Wallenpaupack to the Delaware was built in the 1920s, making it one of the oldest east of the Mississippi River. Even if the Susquehanna-Roseland project were not being proposed, he said, replacement of the aging line is a priority for PPL.

When homes started going up at Saw Creek in the 1960s, the line and the 200-foot right of way already were well-established, Mr. Wirth said. The utility’s easements barred construction within the 200-foot corridor, 100 feet on each side of the center line.

“But at foot 201, if you wanted to build a house there, you can,” he said.

That’s what Saw Creek homeowners like Mr. Spinelli now find themselves up against.

Mr. Derrenbacher, president of the Saw Creek community organization, said while most of the affected homeowners knew PPL had a 200-foot right of way, many were taken aback when they learned the existing clear-cut area is only 150 feet wide in most places.

Trees now provide a buffer between the majority of those homes and the line; that won’t be the case if another 25 feet on either side of the right of way is cleared, Mr. Derrenbacher said.

Mr. Wirth said PPL will be flexible on clearing and will work with property owners at Saw Creek and elsewhere to retain as many trees as possible.

But Mr. Derrenbacher and others at Saw Creek are skeptical. PPL has promised as little disruption as possible, Mr. Derrenbacher said, but the pledge offers little comfort to people who fear the new line is going to devastate their community.

Residents are contacting politicians, environmental organizations, anyone who might be an ally in a fight to halt or find another route for the line.

“You can envision these towers, doubling their size. The blasting. The heavy equipment coming in here,” Mr. Derrenbacher said. “There is no upside for us in this thing, and we have said that to PPL clearly. There is absolutely no upside, only downside.”

Contact the writer: dsingleton@timesshamrock.com

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