Power Lines to Cut Through Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
On October 1, the National Park Service announced that it had approved a controversial proposal by power companies to upgrade the electrical lines running through Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, a 70,000-acre park in New Jersey and Pennsylvania that straddles the Delaware River. Two weeks later, on October 15, a coalition of nine conservation groups including Earthjustice, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and the New Jersey Highlands Coalition filed suit in federal court to stop the powerline upgrade.
There’s a lot at stake. The Susquehanna-Roseland Line upgrade is a $1.2 billion project, intended to carry electricity 146 miles from a nuclear power station in central Pennsylvania to the New Jersey suburbs near Newark. Jointly proposed by PPL Electric Utilities of Pennsylvania and PSE&G of New Jersey, the project would transform an existing 230-kilovolt line to handle 500 kilovolts. Doing so means clearing a wider right-of-way and building significantly taller towers—existing 94 foot open lattices would be replaced by monopole towers nearly 200 feet high and a whopping 16 feet in diameter at the base—in protected parklands of national significance.
The power companies argue that the upgrade is necessary for the integrity and reliability of the power grid in the densely populated region. They want to have it up and running by summer 2015, but that hinges upon being permitted to route the lines through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area—”the largest natural area in the entire National Park System between Virginia and Maine and one of the largest protected natural areas in the metropolitan corridor extending from Washington, D.C., to Boston, Massachusetts,” according to the park website. The proposed powerline would also cut across the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and the Delaware National Wild and Scenic River.
It’s interesting to read and compare three press releases concerning the decision. The Earthjustice release announcing the lawsuit filing asserts that the approval of the powerline project violates three federal laws: the National Environmental Protection Act, the National Park Service Organic Act, and the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The announcement from the Department of the Interior bears a surprising resemblance to the press release from PPL Electric Utilities, touting the job-creation benefits and grid reliability improvements associated with the project.
But here’s the thing: job creation and grid reliability, while fine and good and necessary, are not the responsibility of the National Park Service. The agency’s mission is to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations,” and NPS must comply with federal laws concerning the protection and preservation of the lands under its care. How does approving this powerline project constitute preserving an unimpaired landscape?
This past March, I was one of eight graduate students from around the country to attend Park Break, a workshop hosted at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. We gathered for two reasons: to develop a curriculum on sustainability and energy use for the Pocono Environmental Education Center, and to learn more about the intricacies of national park management. The power line corridor was already a hot topic six months ago, and we heard presentations from both the park’s perspective and that of PPL Electric.
According to Delaware Water Gap superintendent John Donahue, a lawsuit was inevitable, regardless of the park’s decision; the filing by a coalition of environmental and community groups was expected if the National Park Service approved the power companies’ request. If the park had denied the permit application, they would have been sued by the power companies on the grounds that they are legally mandated to maintain a reliable grid. Perhaps this is just an issue, like so many questions of public lands management, that must end up being sorted out by the courts.
Even though I live halfway across the country now, Delaware Water Gap holds a great deal of meaning for me. In some ways, it was my introduction to the national park system to which I have, as an adult, dedicated my career and my heart.
I grew up in suburban New Jersey, only about ten miles outside New York City. I spent a lot of time playing outside as a kid, splashing around in brooks and chasing through the woods, but my family didn’t ever take the big western national parks trip that so many families do. I didn’t go to places like Yosemite and Yellowstone until I was in college, majoring in geology. While I was still in high school, though, I would hike the trails of the Delaware Water Gap with my sister. We clambered up icy rocks to the top of Mt. Tammany in January (a hike called one of the most popular in New Jersey, but trust me, you can find solitude if you go in winter).
Delaware Water Gap was a land of firsts, for me. I saw my first rattlesnake on the Appalachian Trail above Blairstown. I saw my first bald eagle while paddling a canoe on the Delaware near Dingman’s Ferry. I saw my first black bear there, a plump rump crashing through the forest. I saw my first porcupine at dusk one summer night, waddling along a fire road. My first overnight backpacking trip took place in Delaware Water Gap.
Delaware Water Gap is a special place. It deserves better than to have 200-foot-high towers built in the middle of it. Personally, I hope the courts vacate the Record of Decision approving the powerline upgrade.