The Brandywine Conservancy has joined with ten other conservation and environmental groups in a law suit against the U.S. Department of Energy over its final designation of a mid-Atlantic National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor.The NIETC designation gives power companies the right to build new high-voltage interstate transmission lines within the corridor, including building on sensitive and protected lands. The designation also allows power companies to bypass local, state and federal environmental laws.
Further, the power companies may use the federal government's power of eminent domain to acquire the properties they want for their transmission line towers. The power sent through those lines may come from coal-burning plants in the Midwest.
According to a press release issued last week, the suit asks the U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Pennsylvania to require DOE to perform an environmental impact statement on the corridor and consult with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over impacts to endangered species as required by law.
Also, because the current designation would rely on some of the country's oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants to service the region's power demands, the groups are asking that DOE go back and consider more environmentally-friendly alternatives.
A final mid-Atlantic designation was announced by DOE in October 2007. That corridor includes most of Pennsylvania, all of New Jersey and Delaware, and portions of New York, Ohio, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia, and covers an area of 116,000 square miles.
The conservancy and other groups are challenging the designation on grounds that the Department of Energy violated the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act by failing to study the potential harmful impacts of the corridor on air quality, wildlife, habitat and other natural resources.
The conservancy has permanently protected more than 40,000 acres of critical natural, agricultural, cultural and historical resources in Pennsylvania and Delaware and all of those acres lie within the proposed Mid-Atlantic Corridor.
"Over 600,000 acres of open space have been permanently preserved in Delaware and Pennsylvania. It is absolutely critical that we fight for the permanent protection of open space that our conservation easements were thought to have already achieved," said Sherri Evans-Stanton of the Brandywine Conservancy.
Evans-Stanton also said the corridor designation was premature and that the DoE has failed to properly evaluate the environmental impact, alternative energy sources or a reduction in energy.
Joining in the suit are Natural Lands Trust, the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association and eight other regional and national environmental organizations.
Historically, state public utility commissions have overseen the siting of transmission lines. Under the new policy, a utility seeking to build transmission lines in the corridors could take its application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission if a state public utility commission refuses its application or if the project is stalled after a year.
Evans-Stanton said a project could stall simply because a state agency didn't have enough information to make a decision, or if it approved one aspect of the project, but not all of it.
But according to PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization that maintains the power grid in a 13-state region that includes Pennsylvania, oversight by a regional agency is needed. If one state approves a project and another doesn't, it creates gridlock, according to Craig Glazer, PJM Interconnection's vice president for federal government policy.
In response, Piedmont Environmental Council communications director Robert Lazaro said state public utility commissions have been working together for years.
"If a public utility commission rejected a utility's project, why should they be entitled to go before FERC for a do-over?" Lazaro asked.
PJM officials affirm they want increased transmission capacity to bring cheaper power from coal-fired plants in the Midwest to the East.