A decision by the Obama Administration to fast-track seven power transmission line projects, including one through several units of the National Park System, has drawn condemnation from conservation groups.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says the fast-tracking shows the administration's commitment to developing "the kind of critical infrastructure we should be working together to advance in order to create jobs and move our nation toward energy independence.”
But the secretary seems tone-deaf to groups that oppose the transmission project that would run across the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and the Middle Delaware National Scenic River.
“The Obama Administration has failed to protect three popular national park sites in New Jersey and Pennsylvania with today’s decision to include the controversial Susquehanna-Roseland power line project on its list of fast-tracked transmission projects," said Bryan Faehner, the National Parks Conservation Association's associate director for park uses.
“Susquehanna-Roseland proposes to build massive 200-foot towers and power lines across the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, the Middle Delaware National Scenic River, and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Delaware Water Gap alone enjoys more than five million visitors annually – most of which come from nearby urban areas – seeking the park’s inspiring views and outstanding recreational opportunities," he added.
“Building massive power lines across these parks will harm the very resources they were designated to protect. This development can only harm visitors’ experience to the parks and puts economic benefits to local communities at risk. Unlike other proposals mentioned on the administration’s list, the Susquehanna-Roseland power line proposal would not help bring renewable energy sources on-line. Instead, it would transmit electricity produced by dirty coal-fired power plants."
Last month Delaware Water Gap officials announced that a new alternative developed by the applicants has been added to their environmental analysis of the project, alternative 2b. Alternative 2b would be built within the existing right-of-way of the applicants’ original proposal, alternative 2.
"Under alternative 2b, the applicants would not request any additional ROW. They have stated they can safely operate the new line within the existing ROW, which has some sections 100 feet in width," the NRA officials said at the time. "Construction would still require additional clearing for access roads and other features."
The administration's announcement last week to fast-track the project also was criticized by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which said the decision "is a move to bypass proper environmental review designed to protect one of the most scenic areas of the entire national park system."
“We do not object to fast-tracking projects as long as political appointees follow the laws protecting parks and the environment--but that hasn’t happened here,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch in a press statement. “Using jobs as a pretext is misplaced. More jobs can be created by protecting parks than by trashing them.”
PEER contends that Secretary Salazar, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, and other Interior officials have met repeatedly with project proponents, PPL Electric Utilities of Allentown, Pennsylvania and Public Service Electric and Gas Company of Newark, New Jersey, and have already approved a route for a new power line that will cut across the Delaware Water Gap NRA and the Appalachian Trail.
As part of the deal, PEER said the draft EIS will not consider at least two alternatives that would lessen impacts to the park’s scenery but will include at least one alternative (2B) demanded by the companies that is untenable from a safety perspective. The secretary and the director have unofficially committed to the companies that the NPS will select Alternative 2, the alternative preferred by the companies but which is the most damaging to the resources and scenery of the parks, PEER argued. In return, the companies have reportedly agreed to pay $60 million for land acquisition and administration inside and near the NRA.
“This is not ‘fast track,’ it is a short circuit in which political appointees are putting their thumbs on the scale to skew the review process,” Mr. Ruch added. “It is one thing to select an alternative after the conclusion of the NEPA process, but is something else to decide on the alternative before public comment has even begun.”