Utilities Argue They Don’t Have to Honor No-Build Option

Tom Johnson | February 1, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Companies claim existing rights of way through National Park allow them to make necessary upgrades

If the National Park Service blocks a plan to build a high-voltage power line through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, the utilities behind the project said they would tear down existing transmission lines and replace them within a decade anyway.

Public Service Electric & Gas and PPL Electric Utilities argued in comments filed with the federal agency yesterday that their legal rights for an existing right-of-way through the recreation area allow them to maintain utility service on the existing transmission line and make necessary upgrades.

The comments reflect a ratcheting up of the rhetoric in the controversial efforts by the utilities to build the $1 billion Susquehanna-Roseland power line, which would follow the path of an existing 85-year-old power line through three units of the National Park Service, including the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

The line is needed to maintain reliability of the regional power grid and to reduce electric bills for consumers, according to utility officials and executives of the PJM Interconnection, the operator of the grid.

The National Park Service last week concluded public hearings on its draft environmental impact statement, which concluded that the environmentally preferred alternative of six possible options is not to build the line at all.

In their comments, the two utilities argued that option does not prevent impact, since they still will need to rebuild the existing line, replacing current towers with steel poles between 130- and 160-feet high because of tougher design standards.

In that event, the National Park Service would have no say in the matter, the utilities argued, other than requiring a construction permit.

“The DEIS [draft environmental impact statement] fails to acknowledge that the applicants’ legal rights to use the corridor and maintain the line in utility service exist independent of and are not subordinate to NPS discretion,’’ according to the arguments.

In the comments also, the two utilities beefed up an offer to buy thousands of acres of open space as a way to offset any harm upgrading the transmission line would do in the park units. Just a week ago, the utilities said they would spend up to $30 million; in their comments they said they would spend up to $40 million.

“I think they’re kind of desperate,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, which has opposed the line. “There never was any talk of replacing the existing line. If they have to rebuild the line, then they should move it [out of the national park units].’’

But the two executives behind the project, Ralph LaRossa, president and chief operating officer of PSE&G, and David DeCampli, president of PPL, defended the so-called mitigation proposal.

“Our mitigation proposal would provide significant benefits for the public, and would more than offset unavoidable impacts of this needed project,’’ they said in a joint statement. The utilities have identified up to 38,000 acres of land for potential purchase, according to Karen Johnson, a spokeswoman for the utility.

In urging the National Park Service to back its proposed option—replacing towers along the existing line with new and higher towers—the utilities argue that it would have the least impact on the national park units. Other options under consideration would require the companies to cut new corridors through forests and would result in significantly more forest clearing.

Under the two utilities’ mitigation proposal, the fund to preserve thousands of acres of land, which have been identified as priorities by conservation groups, would be administered by a nonprofit organization dedicated to land preservation. The formal comments do not identify the group. PSE&G said it has yet to select the group.

The project is the subject of national focus. Last year, the federal government announced a new pilot program to expedite construction of transmission projects, selecting the Susquehanna-Roseland proposal as one of seven chosen nationally.

Beyond increasing reliability of the power grid, the new power line could save consumers up to $200 million each year by reducing congestion on the system, which tends to spike electric bills for residents and businesses.

The National Park Service has said it would announce its decision on the route in March.