With a decision on the much-debated Susquehanna-Roseland transmission line expected later this month, opponents of the plan are stepping up efforts to convince the Obama administration to block the project.
They are launching an online petition drive aimed at securing at least 5,000 signatures to urge President Obama and Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar to stop the $1 billion project, which could cut through three units of the national park system in the New Jersey Highlands.
The National Park Service is expected to announce its preferred alternative for the 145-mile project, possibly as early as next week, a decision that could be crucial in determining whether the project moves forward. In November, in a draft environmental impact statement, the park service said its “environmentally preferred” alternative is not to build the project.
“For us, we want to engage the public because we think we have a very good chance to stop this project,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, one of many conservation groups opposing the expansion of the power line along an existing 85-year-old right-of-way.
Whether they are successful remains to be seen. Last year, the Obama administration selected the project as one of seven nationwide to be expedited as part of a pilot program to modernize the nation’s power grid.
The National Park Service permit is the last major impediment to the project moving forward. It is necessary because a 45-mile link in New Jersey crosses the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
The power line has been bitterly opposed by conservation groups, who contend it is not needed given a drop in electricity consumption. They also say the line could ruin the scenic vistas in the 10th most visited national recreation area and increase pollution in the region by allowing dirty coal power from Pennsylvania into the state.
PJM Interconnection, the operator of the regional power grid, has mandated the project, developed by Public Service Electric & Power and PPL Electric Utilities in Pennsylvania. Without it, northern New Jersey could face reliability problems that could lead to brownouts, according to backers of the proposal. Proponents also say the project will reduce congestion on the grid, which has spiked electricity prices for consumers in the state.
In January, the two utilities offered to spend up to $30 million to buy up thousands of acres of open space to offset the harm the transmission line would do in the units of the national park system. Yesterday, critics of the proposal said the National Park Service should hold off issuing a decision until the public can review the proposed mitigation plan, which has not yet been made public, according to Scott Olson, a local activist.
“We have full faith in the National Park Service doing the right thing based on the science,’’ said Olson, who added, however, the battle now is one based on politics. “We don’t want to see this national treasure ruined,’’ Olson said.
“We have a real opportunity to protect the park,’’ Tittel added. “That is why it is so critical for the public to contact Salazar.’’