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Power line project cleared in courts

By: David Pierce |

The way has been cleared for two utilities to begin erecting taller towers and more power electrical lines across nearby National Park Service property.

U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts rejected 11 claims by an environmental coalition against the park service, charging that NPS violated three federal laws by granting approval for the utilities to cross the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Delaware River and the Appalachian Trail.

The ruling in favor of the utilities, PPL Electric Utilities and Public Service Electric and Gas, means they can proceed with scheduled land clearing in the park Tuesday. It is part of the two-state 147-mile Susquehanna-Roseland project to move electricity from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.

The coalition, which includes the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Sierra Club and the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, filed suit late last year, charging the park service violated federal laws and its own administrative procedures in granting project approval.

Approval was granted in return for the utilities’ offer of $66 million in “mitigation” for unavoidable environmental and cultural impacts of allowing taller towers and a wider right-of-way across the park near Bushkill. A large portion of that money will be used to buy and protect thousands of acres in Pennsylvania and New Jersey adjoining the national recreation area.

The coalition says expansion of the line that predates the park will permanently destroy or damage fragile wetlands, geological formations, bald eagle habitats, migratory bird corridors and the views of park visitors.

Among those filing statements on the utilities’ behalf was Pam Underhill, recently retired National Park Service superintendent of the Appalachian Trail, who helped develop the agency’s environmental impact statement for the project. She charged that her former agency ignored the impacts to accept the utilities’ financial offer.

But Roberts said the park service and its parent agency, the Interior Department, acted within their legal authority following a required review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“The plaintiffs have not shown that NPS’ decisions in this case were arbitrary or capricious,” Roberts wrote. “The defendants have shown that the agency’s decision is rationally based on the administrative record.”

The utilities say the expanded capacity line will strengthen the regional electric grid by providing additional reliable power.

“It’s the right decision for millions of people throughout the mid-Atlantic region who will have more reliable electric service because of this project,” PPL Electric Utilities said.

The environmental groups are reviewing the ruling and haven’t decided if they will appeal, Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club said.

“We’re disappointed and we think the judge is wrong and we’re going to look at taking the next steps,” Tittel said. “We’ve got to make sure we have the grounds. I think we do.”