By: JAMES HAGGERTY |
The National Park Service has granted final approved to a controversial, high-voltage power line running through Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
The action clears the last major hurdle facing the $1.2 billion Susquehanna-Roseland project, a 500-kilovolt line that will run from the Berwick area to eastern New Jersey. The course will trace the route of an existing 230-kilovolt line through the park.
The approval was expected after the NPS this spring endorsed the placement of the line through a four-mile section of the park in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Allentown-based PPL Electric Utilities and its New Jersey partner in the project, Newark-based Public Service Electric & Gas, say the line will help stabilize the Northeast power grid, help prevent electrical outages and save consumers $200 million yearly by relieving congestion.
The project, which was first proposed in the summer of 2007, has survived momentum shifts, including an apparent reversal of the park service’s position.
The U.S. Department of Energy listed the project among seven proposed electric transmission lines it granted fast-track permitting and construction priority in October 2011. The following month, the NPS issued a draft environmental impact statement opposing placement of the line through the park, a 70,000-acre reservation along 40 miles of the Delaware River.
In January, PPL and PSE&G pledged to commit at least $30 million to acquire and preserve property near the park. The final NPS approval says the utilities will contribute at least $56 million to a federal mitigation fund to offset the project’s environmental impact.
In March, the NPS changed course and endorsed the placement of the line in the park.
The park service’s basis for its decisions says the mitigation funding was not a deciding factor in the approval, which was based on “legal considerations and the relative impacts of the alternatives.”
Kathleen Sandt, spokeswoman for the park service at the Water Gap, referred inquiries to NPS spokesman David Barna, who declined to comment.
Opponents, though, charge the project is too costly, unnecessary to alleviate power shortages and would have detrimental environmental effects. At least one environmental group plans to fight the NPS decision in federal court.
“We believe what the park service did is outrageous,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, which is preparing a legal challenge to the decision. “We are going to fight for the integrity of our parks even if the park service won’t.”
Some of the park’s 80-foot transmission towers will be replaced by 195-foot towers and the existing utility right of way will be widened from 150 feet to 200 feet in some areas, according to the NPS. PPL spokesman Paul Wirth said there will be 15 towers running through park property. More than five miles of new utility access roads will be established in the park, according to the NPS.
Costs for the line will be shared among customers of regional electricity grid operator PJM Interconnection, which includes 13 states and the District of Columbia, state Consumer Advocate Irwin “Sonny” Popowsky said.
Utility commissions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey endorsed the project in 2010. The line is scheduled to go into service in 2015.