Selling National Park Scenery Cheaply
$56 Million Mitigation Deal for Transmission Corridor across Delaware Water Gap
Washington, DC — Top administration officials met behind closed doors to hammer out a payment plan in return for approving a power transmission corridor across some of the most scenic portions of Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The $56 million payment by project sponsors was conditioned on the U.S. Interior Department picking the route preferred by the utilities. The “mitigation” fund was not announced until final approval was granted last October.
Documents obtained by PEER through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit show that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, National Park Service (NPS) Director Jon Jarvis and other senior officials met repeatedly with project proponents, PPL Electric Utilities and Public Service Electric and Gas Company, to work out the details for eventual approval of the Roseland Susquehanna Overland Transmission Project. This project will consist of a string of 200 foot-tall transmission towers whose visual impact will be magnified by tower lighting which will be triggered by the approach of aircraft.
“These documents show that national park view-sheds were sold off at the utilities’ asking price,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to meetings in August, September and December 2011. “These officials are supposed to hold these assets in trust for the American people; they are not empowered to cut deals for their disposal.”
More than a year before the final decision was announced in October 2012, the utilities and Interior officials negotiated a pre-determined outcome including features such as –
- A $56 million fund that would be donated to a non-profit which agreed to follow Interior direction on how to spend the money. Half of the money will be paid on ground-breaking with the balance on project completion. In anticipation, officials drew up a list of property it wished to acquire as well as natural and historic preservation projects it would fund;
- An agreement NOT to consider at least two alternatives that would lessen impacts to the park’s scenery. Interior ended up selecting the alternative with the greatest scenic impact; and
- In a maneuver to deflect challenges, contrary to NPS policy, the agency declined to name a preferred alternative in the draft environmental impact statement (EIS). In the FOIA litigation, NPS claims it has no written record of this decision to waive policy.
In October 2011, PEER publicly objected to these back-room negotiations. The utilities supplied Interior with “talking points” to help deflect media inquiries, including admissions that they “have been discussing mitigation with the National Park Service for many months” and “Yes we met with the Secretary of the Interior.” They counseled withholding details: “As a matter of routine, we do not talk about the details of such discussions, but we fully expect the park service to set a high bar for mitigation if it approves this line, and we fully expect to meet that high bar.” Perhaps the most ironic talking point was:
“How much to you expect mitigation to cost? Mitigation will be determined as part of the EIS process, which is on-going, and will depend on the impact to federal lands, as determined by the EIS process.”
Yet the mitigation fund discussions were entirely excluded from the EIS process.
“Delaware Water Gap has been called the Grand Canyon of the East and was established primarily to preserve its spectacular views. Can you imagine the Interior Secretary selling transmission corridors across the Grand Canyon?” Ruch asked, noting that a lawsuit by conservation groups challenging this Delaware Water Gap transmission plan is still pending.