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PSE&G Power Line Work Starts Without Final OK

Instead of starting work on $790 million project before getting final approval, how about clearing trees along power lines?

Construction has begun on Public Service Electric and Gas Co.'s transmission line upgrade through Northwest New Jersey.

That would seem to be slightly premature, as the National Park Service still technically has not given final approval for the work—upgrading the existing 230-kilovolt transmission line for about 45 miles, adding 500 kilovolts onto towers that would be as tall as 195 feet in some cases.

The park service's approval is only for its property, but it is still critical, given the line runs smack through the Delaware Water Gap. And while the NPS won't make a final decision for at least a month after releasing its environmental impact statement—expected sometime this month—its approval appears to be a given.

Still, it has not been granted and legal appeals are pending, as well.

The line is, however, already way behind schedule: When PSE&G initially proposed it, officials estimated it would have been completed by now.

So the utility announced it has begun preliminary work in Andover Township, Boonton Township, Byram, Jefferson, Hopatcong, Kinnelon and Montville. The work, which ranges from surveying in some places to site clearing and grading and foundation drilling in others, will continue through the end of the month.

The idea of clearing trees and other vegetation, as well as drilling, does not sit well with environmentalists and others who have been fighting the project for years. They were angered by the NPS' reversal earlier this year of its initial determination that no work would be best for the park after PSE&G agreed to pay roughly $40 million to compensate for any loss or damage to parkland.

Opponents contend the upgrade is unnecessary. They point to a decision by PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization, just last month to delete two other projects in the Mid-Atlantic states from its plans. The economic downturn had brought a reduction in the demand for electricity, negating the need for the projects. That has happened in New Jersey, too, according to opponents.

But PJM says nothing has changed the need for the upgrade of the line from Susquehanna, Pa., to Roseland. What's the truth? Supposedly the work was needed to prevent power outages. There were none this year. That doesn't mean there won't be any in the future, but so far, PJM's predictions have not come true.

Opponents say the dice were stacked against them from the start, including the agreement by the Obama administration to place this project on the fast track. That was further proven when the NPS changed its mind from preferring a no-build alternative to the current route upgrade. They also complain the work supports the continuation of dirty coal power by bringing it to New Jersey and beyond, when the state and nation should be looking toward cleaner alternatives.

It seems unquestionable that massive towers will mar the beautiful viewscapes in many places. How dangerous the lines are remains in question, with experts arguing on both sides of the issue. Construction will damage wetlands and other natural areas. But if that's what it takes to prevent widespread blackouts, isn't it worth it?

Right now, the only thing standing in the way of full construction is the final park service decision, unless the opponents can convince a judge to issue an injunction while the case works its way through the courts. PSE&G obviously thinks the odds are in its favor, given it has started work. It would be a huge waste of money, not to mention environmental gems, if they're wrong.

But don't forget that it won't help anyone if the electricity that travels along these massive wires from Pennsylvania can't get to individuals' homes because tree limbs bring down the lines to neighborhoods and homes during storms like the two North Jersey faced last year.

Isn't burying some lines and clearing overgrowth along others, which clearly need to be done regardless of demand, where utilities should be putting more of their resources now?

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