Right on Schedule, Environmental Coalition Takes National Park Service to Court

Tom Johnson | October 16, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Group wants to shut down controversial power line project that cuts through parts of three parks

As expected, a coalition of conservation groups in two states yesterday filed suit in federal court challenging the approval by the National Park Service (NPS) of a much-contested high-voltage power line cutting through parts of three national parks.

The lawsuit, anticipated ever since the NPS approved the $1 billion project last month, hopes to overturn a decision by the federal agency allowing two utilities to expand a transmission line cutting through the heart of the New Jersey Highlands, an area that provides drinking water to more than half of the state’s residents.

The controversy revolves around the Susquehanna-Roseland transmission line, a 145-mile line stretching from Pennsylvania to Roseland in Essex County, a project advocates say will improve reliability on the regional power grid and reduce costs to consumers by easing congestion on power lines.

Public Service Electric & Gas, one of the two utilities building the line, vowed to vigorously fight the lawsuit.

“The lawsuit filed today is a threat to reliable electric service for millions of people throughout the mid-Atlantic region,’’ according to a statement released by the state’s largest electric utility. “It is a last-minute attempt by special-interest groups to block a critical upgrade to our nation’s electric grid. A delay in this project could lead to brownouts or even blackouts across a wide region.’’

The line, the most controversial of a series of expansions of transmission lines in the region is opposed by many conservation groups who argued it is unnecessary given the drop in power demand and its impact on the national parks.

“This decision by the Park Service will permanently scar the landscape and degrade the visitor experience in some of the most visited national parks in the country,’’ said Hannah Chang, attorney for the public interest environmental law firm EarthJustice, representing the conservation groups in the lawsuit. “And what’s worse, the damage from constructing and operating this 500-kilowatt electric transmission on 200-foot towers through these natural treasured places is unnecessary.’’

“The NPS decision is extraordinarily disappointing,’’ said Cinda Waldbuesser, Pennsylvania senior program manage for the National Parks Conservation Association. “America’s national parks are special places, set aside for inspiration and recreation and are not blank spots on the map, conveniently set aside for development projects like supersized transmission lines.’’

In opposing the line, conservation groups argued it is no longer needed, given the drop in energy demand caused by the Great Recession. Its advocates argued it could dramatically reduce congestion costs on the regional power grid, a problem which has cost to New Jersey ratepayers $1 billion a year.

In the statement by the utility, it argued the lawsuit ignores the fact that there is an existing 85-year-old transmission line that runs through these federal lands. That line was built on property easements that give the companies the legal right to reconstruct the line.

The proposed Susquehanna-Roseland line extends from Berwick, PA, to Roseland, NJ. The project is expected to be operational by the summer of 2015.

“The construction of high-voltage transmission lines Susquehanna-Roseland line impedes the development of the renewable energy resources that are our future,’’ said Dave Slaperud of Stop the Lines, a group that opposed the project.