By Susan Cenname, RESPECTAgZone Member and Indiana Township Resident
For the past year, residents of Indiana Township, adjacent to Hartwood Acres County Park, have been under a threat that would change their way of life, the appearance of their community, the value of their homes, and the safety of their land. The threat has been unnecessary on many levels, and yet it persists.
Residents first learned of the threat from a benign-appearing notice that began, “Dear Duquesne Light Customer: As new homes are being built and the demand for energy grows in the area, Duquesne Light Company [DLC] is working to maintain a level of reliability customers have come to expect while increasing the overall resiliency of the grid. Our dedication to improving the way energy is delivered is just one of the many ways we are working to become your next generation energy company.”
It went on to describe the company’s plans to build a new high-voltage transmission line through Indiana Township to service West Deer Municipality. The notices did not contain any maps of the routes being considered by the company. The description of the project failed to vividly reflect the dramatic impact 150-foot high towers would have on our environment, working farms, and landscape.
This notice initiated a process by which residents educated themselves about DLC, their project, its alternatives, and the approvals needed before it could happen. The notice also spurred community members to organize around the issue into a cohesive voice that would be heard by DLC and other decision-makers.
The Project: DLC is proposing to construct a 128 kV high-power transmission line through Indiana Township to serve West Deer Municipality. The question is: how will DLC achieve that goal? DLC initially proposed three routes through Indiana Township. DLC’s proposal identified a “preferred route,” which passed next to Allegheny County’s Hartwood Acres Park. All three routes initially proposed would cut through prime agricultural lands.
The Common Sense Alternative: Through the work of a Township employee, local citizens identified a fourth alternative that would achieve DLC’s goals without the social and environmental impacts of the initial alternatives. This route would hug the Turnpike for much of its path - thereby avoiding much of Indiana Township’s prime agricultural lands and Hartwood Acres Park.
That Turnpike Route, as we term it, has many win-win characteristics.
- It limits visual and environmental degradation to areas already impacted by the Turnpike itself;
- It can share some of the existing right-of-way belonging to the Turnpike, which reduces costs and impacts associated with right-of-way management;
- It provides greater engineering redundancy and resiliency to the electric grid—a stated project goal for DLC;
- It is supported by the PA Turnpike Commission; the PA Department of Agriculture, the PA Office Small Business Administration, and the local community; and
- It causes the least environmental and social impact of any of the alternatives being considered.
The Process: As our group dug into this proposed project, we learned that DLC had to follow a specific process in order to obtain approval to implement it. Because DLC is a regulated electric service provider that has the authority to condemn private property, it must apply for approval and obtain the consent of the Public Utility Commission (PUC) before implementing the project. The cost of this project will be borne by DLC’s customers, so DLC must first and foremost demonstrate a need for the project. After performing an environmental assessment of the alternatives, DLC must justify its choice of routes before the PUC.
Because the PUC is a government entity, its decision, and by extension DLC’s decision, must comply with Article I, Section 27 of the PA Constitution, known as the Environmental Rights Amendment (ERA). The ERA requires government, when faced with equally practicable alternatives, to choose that which does not harm the fundamental constitutional rights granted citizens by Section 27, that is, the right to clean air, pure water, and the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.
If this project is needed, we, the citizens of Indiana Township who have organized as RespectAgZone, urge DLC to choose the most common sense alternative for its proposed high-voltage power line -- along the existing Pennsylvania Turnpike route. Only that route minimizes environmental and social costs while achieving the overall benefits proposed for the project. RespectAgZone is pleased to have the assistance of and be represented in this matter by PennFuture, which we were glad to learn recently won an important land use decision before the PA Supreme Court, and which has substantial experience before the PUC.
We look forward to the day when DLC removes the constant threat of this proposed project and does the right thing by prioritizing the long-term natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of these beautiful lands so accessible to the citizens of the city of Pittsburgh.