By Ted Waddell
CALLICOON May 23, 2006 What was billed as another in a series of "informational" presentations by New York Regional Interconnect (NYRI), a company which proposes to construct a 190-mile-long high-voltage direct current (HVDC) electric transmission line through several counties in the Empire State (including Sullivan), turned into a meeting where tempers flared as NYRIs project caused sparks to fly while officials attempted to outline the $1.2 billion project.
NYRI showed up with four representatives: Bill May (project manager), Robert L. Malecki (regulatory affairs), Len Singer (attorney) and Johnathan Pierce (public relations).
As part of Article VII of the Public Service Law, the NYS Public Service Commission (PSC) "strongly encourages applicants to voluntarily communicate with the public early in the project's planning phase, as well as during all subsequent phases."
Since publicly announcing its plan to construct a series of 85' to 130' towers linking electric power substations in Utica to New Windsor along a route identified by NYRI on March 15, 2006, NYRI has conducted a series of often stormy "informational" meetings to sell the idea to the general public.
On Thursday, NYRI made its pitch to a standing-room-only crowd of 450-500 folks mostly opposed to the project who gathered at the Delaware Community Center in Callicoon.
Before the meeting got under way, protesters staged an anti-powerline march across the Callicoon Bridge overlooking the Upper Delaware River, which in 1978 came under federal protection by the National Park Service when it was included in the Department of Interior's Wild & Scenic Rivers System, as established by Congress in 1976.
Taking center stage in the back of a pickup truck parked in front of the center was a traffic-stopping, 14-foot-high wooden replica of an HVDC transmission tower (one of an estimated 482 towers over the length of the proposed project), complete with simulated bolts of electricity, made by Martin Springhetti of Galilee, Pa.
He also made several mini-towers linked by clothesline representing HVDC lines, which were paraded back and forth across the bridge.
Protesters carried anti-NYRI signs, a sampling of which read: "Our Eagles, Our River," "Washington Double-Crossing the Delaware," "NYRI - What Part of 'Wild & Scenic' Don't You Understand?" "Paddle Power, Not Tower Power," "ZAP Power," "Fishing Lines, Not Power Lines" and, in a call for thinking about conservation, "Green Energy, Not High-Voltage Greed."
Sabrina Artell of Liberty and New York City, creator of "Trailer Talk" (a popular radio program known for tackling both sides of controversial issues), showed up with her vintage red and white trailer and promptly set up shop in the parking lot as she invited both sides of the fence to air their views.
"There are places for powerlines, but not in the Upper Delaware River corridor," said NYS Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther. "It's part of the beautiful resource, and I think it will affect the economy. There are alternatives. . . . The easiest way isn't always the best way."
Later on, after the NYRI presentation, spokesperson Pierce sat down in Artell's trailer and defended the project, asking folks to get involved in the process.
"People have to get involved with the Public Service Commission and become party to the Article VII application," he said. "In that process, people can work with us and the Public Service Commission.
"This is where people live, and they will defend wherever they live with everything they have," responded Artell.
"How can people work with you if they are fighting you," she asked, to which Pierce replied, "If people are concerned, they should be working within the system, the Article VII process."
James Bleazard waited for the meeting to start, holding a hand-painted sign reading "Our Eagles, Our River" in reference to the Upper Delaware's bald eagle population.
His take on the project?
"I'm against it because it's not environmentally sound," said Bleazard. "We should be looking at alternative sources of energy. It's just feeding our addiction, and as our great oilman and statesman George W. Bush stated, we're addicted to oil."
Paul Hindes of Kenoza Lake said he thought the NYRI project was a bad idea.
"They don't really care about us. Their focus is on winning over the New York State Public Service Commission and the [United States] Department of Energy," he said. "I think that's where the battle is going to end up being fought."
Before the public had its say, Malecki and May presented a brief overview of the proposed NYRI project.
"We've been working at it for two years," said Malecki in his opening remarks.
And then NYRI's project manager picked up the presentation.
"As new information becomes available for refinement, we will continue to work with communities, towns, all municipalities and elected officials throughout the course of the project, not because it's our job but because it's the right thing to do."
According to May, "all of us in New York State receive our electric power from generation, both locally and from upper regions in the state to the west and the north.
"Unfortunately, as demographics have changed, many years have passed since we made significant investments in our interstate transmission system," he said. "It's become very heavily overloaded, congested and very expensive to the consumers. . . . We have become accustomed to having our lights on all the time.
"We are a new resource that seeks to reduce the cost of generation and provide lower-cost electricity," he added.
Addressing the question of who's backing NYRI, May said, "The company that I work for . . . a New York corporation with an Albany headquarters . . . has gone out and sought private capital from the marketplace. Investors, not ratepayers or taxpayers, will fund development through the Article VII process.
"The company is committed to environmental and technical excellence," said May.
May said if the project is approved "to construct a fully integrated system that's reliable," the corporation would not file for tax abatements and would seek to provide benefits to the local communities impacted by the project.
In previous meetings, NYRI was chastised in the media for in essence controlling public input and questioning by reportedly only fielding questions at tables staffed by company reps who were in charge of specific aspects of the project.
At the Callicoon meeting after the brief overview of the project by Malecki and May, the people had their say at a microphone set up in the middle of the packed community center.
Some folks made prepared statements, while others asked pointed questions about the HVDC project.
Rodney Gaebel, Sullivan County Legislator (District 5) speaking on behalf of the Legislature and elected representative of one of three districts in the county that would be affected by the proposed project led off by telling people that earlier that day, the County Legislature passed by a 9-0 vote a resolution in opposition to the NYRI HVDC project.
Lisa Richard of Cochecton raised questions regarding the identities of the company's stakeholders, the effect on local property values, eminent domain and the extent of right of ways (ROWs), which, according to the NYRI spokespersons, would extend a total width of 150 feet along the approved route.
"We would negotiate at fair market value . . . on a case by case basis," replied May to the question regarding eminent domain, and after a brief conversation with the NYRI legal counsel, he told the audience that private land could be taken over by a private company by right of eminent domain.
Willie and Renee Bowers live along Callicoon Creek above Hankins, a few hundred feet from where the Columbia Gas Company line (referred to as the Millennium Pipeline) crosses the creek.
"A flood took out 15 feet of the pipeline, and it took eight months to get it fixed," said Willie Bowers, questioning the wisdom of running high-voltage powerlines over existing flammable natural gas lines.
"You want to run electric lines over this?" he asked the NYRI representatives. "Don't try to pit us against each other!"
At about this point in the public question-and-answer session, John Wortmann of Port Jervis walked up to the microphone and said he was in favor of the NYRI project, to which the crowd responded with yells of derision and calls of "NYRI plant!"
"It needs to be built," said Wortmann. "We need the power, it's that simple. I like having three TVs, and I like having three air conditioners, with power 24/7.
"People come out to these things [public meetings] because they don't want it in their back yard," he added. "I don't want it in my back yard either, but I like having electric lights."
With that, Wortmann grabbed his umbrella and headed out a side door, only to be verbally confronted by Pat Carullo, one of the founders of the Upper Delaware Preservation Coalition (UDPC), a grassroots group opposed to the NYRI project.
Then it was Noel van Swol's turn at bat.
"I'm here wearing three separate hats," he said. "As a property owner, a member of the Sullivan West school board, and president of the Independent Land Holders Association [a group originally formed to fight the arrival of the NPS in the river corridor during the late 70s]."
Van Swol took center stage with a legal pad filled with comments and questions about the NYRI project, ranging from their stated position on never requesting tax abatements to the company's promises of community betterment projects to a predicted decline in property values and potential terrorist threats to a major HVDC line, and to the specter of condemnation of private land under the power of eminent domain.
"If you enter into negotiations and you have the power of condemnation, you are putting a gun to the head of every property owner that you negotiate with," he said. "We cannot live with that. That belongs in the old Soviet Union, not in New York State or the United States of America."
NYS Senator John J. Bonacic followed van Swol to the microphone and made no bones about his opposition to the NYRI project.
"We are not going to let you come in here and damage our environment," he said.
"You know these powerlines are going to hurt the environment . . . and you're going to do this all in the name of greed," added Senator Bonacic.
"I promise you this: every step of the way, we will have environmental experts, and we will have legal experts fight you on everything you say at the Public Service Commission and, if necessary, in Washington," he told the crowd, who responded with a standing ovation.
At this point, Malecki told the audience that no section of the preferred route would be within the Upper Delaware River corridor.
David Forney, superintendent of the 73.4-mile-long Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River, jumped to his feet and challenged NYRI's statement.
"Excuse me, but it does. . . . The pipeline is four miles in the corridor," he said, noting that according to a recent NPS study, the proposed NYRI project is located within the federally protected Upper Delaware River corridor at four (possibly five) locations, for a total of four miles.
"We're going by the best resources we have," responded Malecki, to which Supt. Forney replied, "That's incorrect."
Information subsequently provided by NPS administrative staff identified two locations within the Town of Fremont, one in Delaware and either one or two in Cochecton, depending upon which branch of the Columbia gas line NYRI follows.
According to a map released to the public by NYRI dated March 15, 2006, "route studies have advanced and the intention is to nominate as the proposed route the study corridor along the NYSEG electric transmission line from Norwich to Deposit and the Millennium Pipeline corridor from Deposit to the Town of Deerpark. . . . The railroad section from Norwich to Binghamton and Binghamton to Port Jervis, including the section in the Delaware River Valley will not be used. . . . NYRI continues to seek public input for continuing its route studies on all segments of the project."
In a post-meeting interview, May said that in previous public "informational" meetings NYRI was able to present "more technical and detailed information," but this was muted a bit by the requested format of the meeting in Callicoon, a forum that put the public in the spotlight, rather than NYRI specialists.
"I've been in the industry for 30 years . . . involved in powerplants, construction and maintenance," he said. "In no place have I ever been where energy projects are not widely debated and discussed in the community.
"Initially in the project, everybody is opposed to it, [but] our lights are on here tonight because this is part of the New York integrated bulk power transmission system," added NYRI's project manager.
"It gets here by the type of infrastructure we are proposing, and it goes though somebody's back yard," added May.
Reacting to the meeting, Carullo said on behalf of the UDPC, "The community has come together people from the left and people from the right. Our political leaders have really solidified our community. . . . We're working together to rid ourselves of the problem."