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Lines drawn over power poles

A 2005 law means utilities may build in protected lands, preservationists warn. But companies say the system needs upgrading.

July 22, 2007|Kimberly Hefling | Associated Press

GETTYSBURG, PA. — Apple trees have been planted, wood fences restored and power lines buried in recent years to transform the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg to the way it looked when Union and Confederate forces clashed on farmers' fields in 1863.

But preservationists worry that the national military park in Pennsylvania's picturesque fruit belt soon may be in the shadow of high-powered transmission lines.

Gettysburg isn't the only vulnerable site, thanks to a 2005 law that gave federal regulators new authority over where power lines could be built. Preservationists fear the law could place hundreds of national and state parks and other protected sites in the Northeast and Southwest in or near the path of power lines.

"They're not little modest poles that you wouldn't notice," said Joy Oakes, senior regional director at the National Parks Conservation Assn.

The law was enacted after power companies complained that local and state authorities, which historically have decided where power lines go, were reluctant to approve them -- often because of residents' opposition. The stalemate, according to the companies, contributed to blackouts such as the one in 2003 that swept from Ohio to New York City.

Using the law, the Energy Department this year proposed making two large swaths of land in the Northeast and Southwest "national interest" corridors. If the corridors are approved by Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, federal regulators can order power lines built in them, regardless of state and local opposition.

The Wilderness Society estimates that millions of acres of wildlife refuges, cemeteries, national seashores, protected wilderness, national parks and other types of protected land are within the proposed corridors.

Environmental activists contend the corridors were drawn broadly to make it difficult to tell where the power lines would go. They say the Energy Department should have done a thorough environmental analysis and declared protected areas off limits.

The department is proposing an "overbroad solution" that "bypasses important legal and procedural safeguards," said Nada Culver, the Wilderness Society's senior counsel.

If a protected area is in the planned path of a power line, she said, the agency with jurisdiction could be forced or pressured into allowing the line to be constructed. But there is no guarantee that a utility company could put lines in such an area.

The Energy Department says it will require a full environmental and cultural review before federal regulators order a line built, and alternatives will have to be considered.

Just because a power company seeks permission from federal regulators, that "doesn't mean they automatically get what they want," said Barbara Connors, a spokeswoman for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That agency would have the final say about where lines could run in the corridors.

Power companies contend the large corridors would give them more flexibility to avoid protected areas. They would have to work with state regulators for a year before going to federal regulators as a last resort.

"We do have to build infrastructure through areas and at some point people do have to choose if they want reliable, affordable electricity, but you also have to balance all of those issues, protected sites being one of them," said Ed Legge, a spokesman for Edison Electric Institute, the association of U.S. shareholder-owned electric utilities.

Opposition to the proposed corridors has been particularly strong in Virginia and New York. Utility companies have proposed building lines in the scenic Piedmont area of Virginia and New York's Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River Park. Opponents say the law makes it easier for the utility companies to eventually get their way.

Governors from the two states were among at least five last month that supported a House amendment sponsored by Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.) that would have delayed the law from taking effect. The amendment was rejected 257-174.

The Energy Department, which estimates electricity demand will grow 39% from 2005 to 2030 in the residential sector and 63% in the commercial sector, may propose other high-priority corridors elsewhere. An estimated $31.5 billion will be spent to improve the nation's transmission system from 2006 to 2009, according to the Edison Electric Institute.

The proposed East Coast corridor would run north from Virginia and include most of Maryland, all of New Jersey and Delaware and large sections of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The Southwest one would stretch from Southern California into Arizona and Nevada.

The comment period on the proposed corridors ended July 6. Energy Department spokeswoman Julie Ruggiero said Bodman would determine whether to approve the corridors as proposed, reject them or order changes. There is no deadline but the agency is "eager ... to get this process moving," she said.

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