A federal judge on Aug. 30 dismissed a lawsuit challenging federal permits for the Susquehanna-Roseland transmission line that was filed by several environmental groups, including the New Jersey Sierra Club.
The groups sought to block construction of the project through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, PPL (NYSE:PPL) said on Aug. 30.
“This ruling affirms the position of the companies and the National Park Service [(NPS)] that these permits were issued properly and after thorough study,” Stephanie Raymond, PPL Electric Utilities vice president of Transmission and Substations, said in the statement. “We will move forward with construction as planned.”
The 145-mile line, which also involves Public Service Enterprise Group (NYSE:PEG) (PSEG) subsidiary Public Service Electric and Gas, is already under construction elsewhere in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
The project is needed to keep the regional electric grid reliable, and to prevent overloads of other existing power lines, PPL said, adding that the line is expected to be in service by June 2015.
In his order, Chief Judge Richard Roberts of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, said, among other things, that the plaintiffs argued that the NPS did not take a “hard look” at the full scope of the project’s environmental impacts. NPS recognized that the utilities could determine the route of the line outside of the parks’ boundaries and thus, NPS identified visual split location (VSL) points, which refer to “[t]he geographical point outside the parks at which it becomes physically possible for the applicant to route the line as it sees fit.”
The VSLs determination is important because while NPS can require the applicant to follow a certain route inside the VSLs, the agency cannot require the applicant to follow a certain route beyond those points, Roberts said. Therefore, NPS limited its review to the area between the VSLs for each alternative.
He also noted that the plaintiffs argued that NPS did not provide a reasoned analysis for the approval of the special use permits and expanded right of way (ROW) for the line in light of the significant adverse environmental impacts that would result from the construction.
In this case, the feasibility of the no-action alternative lies at the center of this dispute, he said, adding that the record of decision explains that a no-action alternative was not feasible because the utilities own a property interest in the existing ROW, upon which they could build a new line within the current ROW without NPS approval.
The plaintiffs contested the utilities’ rights under the easements and argued that the utilities were required to gain NPS approval even if they attempted to build the line without an expanded ROW.
“[T]he narrow question presented here is whether NPS made a rational decision that the no action alternative was not feasible and that an alternative option was preferred,” Roberts added. “Faced with ‘significant uncertainty’ and a ‘strong probability’ that the outcome — either the unilateral building of the new transmission line within the intervenor-defendants’ [ROW] or future litigation regarding the easements and potential takings claim — would be ‘worse for park resources than the selected alternative[,]’ NPS decided that the no action alternative was not feasible.”
However, he added, NPS considered in reaching its decision the legal analysis regarding whether the utilities could build the line without approval and the utilities’ statements that they intended to build the line without NPS approval. NPS decided that the “least intrusive” option would be the best alternative, he said, later adding that the plaintiffs “have not shown that NPS’ decision was arbitrary and capricious.”
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, told TransmissionHub on Aug. 30, “Even though we’re disappointed with the ruling, we’re going to look for grounds for appeal.”
It is not the first time the group received an unfavorable court decision as the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division on Feb. 11 handed a defeat to the New Jersey Sierra Club and others, which had challenged the state regulators’ 2010 approval of the New Jersey portion of the 500-kV line.
A PPL spokesperson told TransmissionHub on Aug. 30 that the judge ruled on the entire lawsuit at hand and did not rule on an Aug. 19 injunction filed by the Sierra Club and others, adding, “The injunction question is now moot.”
He was referring to the preliminary injunction filed by the New Jersey Sierra Club and other national and local environmental and citizen groups to stop construction of the line in three national park units, according to an Aug. 19 statement from the New Jersey Sierra Club.
The group noted that PSEG is scheduled to begin work in the parks on Sept. 3.
“This unnecessary project was inappropriately rubberstamped by NPS despite causing irreparable harm to the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, eighth most visited park in the national park system, the Appalachian Trail and the Middle Delaware River,” the group said.
Tittel said in the statement that the line will cause irreparable harm and permanent damage to the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
“This destruction cannot be mitigated and that is why we are seeking an injunction,” he added. “We cannot allow one of the biggest violations of the public trust and the National Park Service to go forward. Since the Park Service said it will not protect the park we have to. In the 150 years since our first National Park this is one of the worst decisions ever. If they can do it here, Yellowstone or Yosemite could be next.”
The group noted that PJM Interconnection last year announced the cancellation of two similar transmission expansion projects: the Mid-Atlantic Power Pathway and the Potomac Appalachian Transmission Highline. The cancellation, the group added, was based on falling demand, new generation plants and the efficiency of demand response programs.
Especially in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which hit the East Coast in October 2012, smart grid and renewable energy projects should be at the forefront, the group said.