Power Line Debate at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area Highlights National Issues

Conservations groups and some local residents are opposed to power lines similar to these in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Photo Courtesy of greenjersey.org.

A classic battle between utility companies and environmental groups is under way at Delaware Water Gap National Recreational Area, on the Pennsylvania—New Jersey border, and it's the latest example of similar issues all across the country. Finding a balance between energy needs (and wants) and the protection of resources in and outside of parks has been an on-going struggle, and more challenges undoubtedly lie ahead.

What's the current situation at Delaware Water Gap, and what might it portend for other parks? Here's a brief summary by the park of the proposed project, which is dubbed the Susquehanna-Roseland Transmission Line:

Pennsylvania Power and Light Electric Utilities (PPL) and Public Service Electric and Gas Company (PSE&G) have requested a construction and right-of-way (ROW) permit from the National Park Service for the expansion of an existing electric transmission line that crosses NPS lands within Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The existing ROW contains a single 230,000 volt (kV)electric transmission line; The Applicants’ proposal includes replacing the existing 80-foot towers with new larger towers (up to 200 feet high) and adding an additional 500 kV transmission line.

The request would necessitate widening the cleared area and the existing ROW and constructing new access roads. The expanded line and new towers will impact three units of the National Park Service: the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area; the Middle Delaware National Scenic and Recreational River and National Recreation Water Trail; and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

According to the power companies, the need for the project is clear, and their message to customers is simple:

The existing power line was built in the 1920s and can’t handle the modern load. The experts who manage the regional grid warn that we risk blackouts and brownouts starting in 2012 if we don’t act.

The new lines are needed to "Keep your lights on" and "contain prices."

That pitch from the utility companies includes some masterful sound bites that play well with many people, but not everyone is convinced. Opinions of local residents and government leaders are divided on the need for the project and the best route for the lines, and a number of environmental groups are saying, "Not so fast."

After the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) approved the proposed project last week, the New Jersey Sierra Club issued a press release under the heading, "BPU Mistakes Greed for Need." That group contends consumers will shoulder the expense of an unnecessary project; media reports of the cost range from $650 million to $1.2 billion. The Sierra Club says,

The BPU's decision will allow PSE&G to push onto ratepayers the cost of importing cheap coal energy and undermining renewable energy.
The Susquehanna-Roseland transmission line is one of many transmission lines being proposed around the country to move coal power to the best paying markets.

The cumulative impact of constructing new towers, carving new access roads, and promoting coal powered energy in the mid-west will have profoundly negative impacts on the Highlands region, and air quality throughout the state of New Jersey.

The line's potential electrical capacity can easily be met with green measures outlined in the state's Energy Master Plan.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has previously given conditional approval for the project, so the ball now rests in the NPS court. It's a situation that raises some thorny issues.

The proposed new power lines would run for approximately 146 miles; under the current proposal, about four miles of that route would be located on NPS property. There's no question that a new, wider utility corridor and the much higher transmission towers would have visual and other impacts. A group called Delaware Riverkeepers says,

The proposed power lines include towers twice as tall as the tree line. You will be able to see these eyesores from miles away on the river, on the trail, from the swimming hole, in the car, from your hotel room - from everywhere.

Are there alternatives? The NPS will prepare an Environmental Impact Statement before reaching a final decision. Options that could be evaluated include relocating part or all of the utility line outside the park, putting all or part of the new line underground, and even putting the power line on the bottom of the river.

Arguments against some those options have already been voiced; they include the dramatically higher cost of underground lines, which would ultimately be paid by consumers. One alternative route would reportedly require clearing of currently undisturbed wooded areas; another would require development of a new utility corridor through more heavily populated areas.

As is always the case, there are no easy solutions, but the project raises some questions that will be faced again in other NPS areas. This proposal would clearly have impacts on the park, so should protection of park lands prevail, even if alternative routes would have arguably greater impacts on areas outside the park?

In the "big picture," does it make more sense to accept some impacts by expanding an existing utility corridor on park property in order to avoid greater impacts from carving a new corridor through land outside the park? Should the added financial cost of alternative routes or techniques ever enter into the equation? Are the new power lines needed at all, or is this simply a case of more "old thinking" by utility companies?

The traditional view of park supporters has been to protect park values at all costs; opponents disagree. At least one newspaper in the Delaware Water Gap area predicts the proposed project will ultimately end up in litigation, so these questions aren't simply academic ones.

The NPS is holding three public meetings this week in the local area: on February 16 in Bushkill, Pennsylvania; February 17 in Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey; and February 18 in Parsippany, New Jersey. You'll find details on the meeting times and locations at this link.

These meetings are among the first steps in the NPS response to the utility companies' request; this stage is known as "scoping," and the agency will use the comments received in the development of an Environmental Impact Statement for the project.

It's not necessary to attend the public meetings to make a comment; you can do so on-line until March 5, 2010.

Before you comment, you'll need some information about the proposal and some options that have been under discussion. You can download maps of the proposed and other alternative routes for the transmission lines, a scoping newsletter that describes "the project issues, objectives, impact topics, or other concerns," and an "Internal Scoping Report" that summarizes the results of the internal scoping meeting held on September 15-17, 2009. That document provides a review of the project and an overview of the issues identified by the project interdisciplinary team.

The current debate at Delaware Water Gap isn't the only such issue involving parks. As previously reported in the Traveler, Everglades National Park is in the midst of a similar utility line controversy, and similar challenges seem inevitable as proposed solar and wind energy projects move forward across the country.

Although the questions at Everglades and Delaware Water Gap involve transmission lines for "conventional" energy sources, some park supporters are likely to find themselves in the ironic position of opposing some "green" energy projects and transmission lines needed to carry power from solar or wind facilities to consumers, if those facilities impact parks.

Plans for designated utility corridors on federal lands have been under way for several years, and they sparked concerns by conservation groups. In 2008, the National Parks Conservation Association said,

"...the Park Service’s ability to meet its mandate to “conserve the scenery” within the parks could be threatened if new energy corridors, included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, are inappropriately sited through or within the scenic viewsheds of national battlefields, national scenic trails, and other national parks within the park system."

In 2009 this issue moved into the courts, and it has attracted some heavy-hitters, including the National Chamber Litigation Center (a pro-business group affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) and a coalition of fourteen conservation groups and one Colorado County.

That debate has faded into the background for the time being, but it's certain to reappear.

Is the situation at Delaware Water Gap an example of irreconcilable differences, or can good planning and reasoned debate resolve these conflicts between energy and parks? All of us have a stake in the outcome.