Handing a major victory to electric utilities, the National Park Service yesterday selected a route for a contentious high-voltage power line through three sections of the national park system in the New Jersey Highlands.
The $1 billion project, developed by Public Service Electric & Gas and PPL Electric Utilities Corp., calls for building a new 145-mile transmission line, virtually all of it along the route of an 85-year-old power line from Berwick, Pa., to Roseland in Essex County.
In granting a permit for the expansion along the existing route, the National Park Service approved one of the last major impediments to the project moving forward, although the decision will need to be ratified in a Record of Decision.
Meanwhile, environmental groups are still challenging the issue, most notably in the state appeals court in May.
The permit from the National Park Service is necessary because a 45-mile link in New Jersey crosses the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
To proponents of the project, the line will avoid potential brownouts in northern New Jersey and save consumers more than $200 million a year by easing congestion on the power grid, a problem that can lead to huge price spikes for electric customers.
The power line, however, drew heated opposition from most environmental groups here, who argued it was unnecessary and would allow power suppliers to pump cheap, but dirty coal-generated electricity into the state from the Midwest and elsewhere. They also argued the line would spoil scenic vistas in the nation’s tenth-most visited national recreation area.
“If you could put a power line through this national park, then why not Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon?’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Today, the Obama administration sold out our National Parks.’’
Conservationists had hoped for a repeat of an earlier decision by the National Park Service, which said the most environmentally preferred alternative in a draft environmental impact statement was a “no-build’’ option. That decision in November was surprising, given it came less than a month after the Obama administration had selected the project as one of seven nationwide to be fast-tracked as part of an effort to modernize the country’s power grid.
“We were unable to match the utilities lobbying effort,’’ said Elliot Ruga, senior policy analyst for the New Jersey Highlands Coalition. “The National Park Service didn’t have the backbone to go ahead with the environmentally preferred alternative.’’
“In identifying the preferred alternative, we closely examined the existing easements owned by the utilities, the impacts of the proposed transmission line, alternatives to the proposal, and mitigation measures to avoid and minimize adverse impacts to park resources,’’ said Dennis Reidenbach, the park service’s regional director for the Northeast region.
The two utilities hailed the decision as a major step forward in developing the project, known as the Susquehanna-Roseland line.
“We commend the National Park Service for its very thorough review, and for concluding that our proposed route provides the most appropriate balance of meeting society’s needs while minimizing impacts to federal lands,’’ said Ralph LaRossa, president and chief operating officer of PSE&G and Gregory Dudkin, president of PPL, in a joint statement released by the companies.