Preservationists worry that a 2005 law that gave U.S. regulators new authority over where massive power lines are built could put hundreds of national and state parks and other protected sites in the Northeast and Southwest in or near their path.
GETTYSBURG, Penn. -- Preservationists worry that a 2005 law that gave U.S. regulators new authority over where massive power lines are built could put hundreds of national and state parks and other protected sites in the Northeast and Southwest in or near their path.
"They're not little modest poles that you wouldn't notice," said Joy Oakes, senior regional director at the National Parks Conservation Association.
The law was enacted in response to power companies' complaints 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 contributed to blackouts such as the one in 2003 that swept from Ohio to New York City, the companies said.
The U.S. Energy Department estimates electricity demand will grow 39 percent from 2005 to 2030 in the residential sector and 63 percent in the commercial sector. The power has to go somewhere.
"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.
Using the new law, the Energy Department this year proposed making two large swaths of land in the Northeast and Southwest "national interest" corridors. If Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman approves them, 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 say the corridors were drawn broadly to make it difficult to tell where the power lines would go. They say the department should have done a thorough environmental analysis and declared protected areas off limits.
If a protected area is in the planned path of a power line, the agency with jurisdiction could be forced or pressured into allowing the line to be constructed, said Nada Culver, the Wilderness Society's senior counsel. But there is no guarantee a utility company could put lines in such an area.
The Energy Department says it would require a full environmental and cultural review before federal regulators could order a line built, and alternatives would 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 say 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.
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.
Opposition has been particularly strong in Virginia and New York. Governors from the two states were among at least five last month that supported a House amendment that would have delayed the law from taking effect. The amendment was rejected 257-174.
On the Net:
Gettysburg National Military Park: http://www.nps.gov/gett/
Gettysburg Foundation: http://www.gettysburgfoundation.org/
Edison Electric Institute: http://www.eei.org/
Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River: http://www.nps.gov/upde/
Civil War Preservation Trust: http://www.civilwar.org/
National Parks Conservation Association: http://www.npca.org/
National Parks Service: http://www.nps.gov/
Source: Associated Press