Story and photo by Jay Cook
NEWARK – Instead of the usual Thursday morning commute, dozens of concerned Monmouth County residents made the trip to One Penn Plaza East in protest of a controversial utility project right in their backyards.
About 80 members of Residents Against Giant Electric (RAGE), who donned red and white T-shirts with the phrase “No Monster Power Lines” plastered across their backs, sat in on the Oct. 13 NJ Transit Board of Directors meeting.
On tap for discussion was whether or not an easement should be granted by NJ Transit to Jersey Central Power & Light Company (JCP&L) for construction of the hotly-debated Monmouth County Reliability Project (MCRP); if not permitted, the project could be stopped right in its tracks.
“If you say yes, this project will have your name on it just as much as JCP&L’s,” said RAGE leader Rachael Kanapka. “Don’t let this be your legacy. Don’t let JCP&L make you their accomplice. Protect yourselves, and protect us.”
The MCRP calls for a 230-kV transmission line to be built along a 10-mile stretch of the NJ Transit North Jersey Coast Line commuter rail line right-of-way. If approved, the project would begin in Aberdeen and end in Red Bank, traveling through Hazlet, Holmdel and Middletown. The price tag currently stands at $111 million.
In JCP&L’s petition filed with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) on Aug. 9, it stated that 17 potential corridors were considered in a route selection process.
Kanapka said that RAGE has gathered 6,300 signatures on a petition to JCP&L, 2,400 signatures on a petition to NJ Transit, 2,000 letters from residents unable to attend the meeting and additional support of 4,229 other concerned neighbors on online discussion forums; all are against the utility’s proposal.
“Since May, a lot of people have gathered up in opposition to this project; this is honestly one tiny sliver of what RAGE is,” she said.
Numerous elected officials in opposition to the MCRP were allotted time by the Board of Directors to speak.
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R- NJ), a 36-year veteran of Congress, focused on health defects caused by high-voltage transmission lines. He said this denial of science reminded him of the “smoking debacle,” and he urged that “for the families, especially with kids who may be adversely affected by JCP&L’s proposal, I respectfully ask that you turn it down.”
Tony Perry, who serves as the director of legislative affairs for state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-13), questioned the necessity of such a project. “Monmouth County was ground zero for damage done by Super Storm Sandy, and yet this project would not have prevented the incredible amount of damages that we saw in the days and weeks following the storm,” he said.
Terri Vilardi, RAGE’s Middletown vice president, read two statements into the record. The first was from Assemblywoman Amy Handlin, which noted that outside of health concerns, “there is also the possibility of dangerous repercussions should one of the towers fall and crash down onto the tracks. Train service would be compromised, and an expensive and jeopardous repair would be needed.” The second statement was drafted by Red Bank Mayor Pasquale Menna; he asked that the Board of Directors “deny JCP&L the existing public use of right-of-way servicing New Jersey Transit’s North Jersey Coast Rail Line to install the proposed transmission towers.”
Freeholder Serena DiMaso, former mayor of Holmdel, spoke on behalf of the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders. She observed how such a project would change the landscape in eastern Monmouth County. “Please keep in mind that the tallest building in Red Bank, which is called the Riverview Towers, is only 159 feet tall. By comparison, the rest of the tallest buildings in our other towns run less than 100 feet,” she said.
Kevin Settembrino, speaking on behalf of the Middletown Township Committee, of which he is a member, said the project could disrupt daily transportation. “Where the construction is ultimately limited to daytime or nighttime work, it’s hard to imagine the construction issues involved with this project wouldn’t have severe impacts on day-to-day transit operations,” he said.
Holmdel Mayor Eric Hinds provided a more personal account to the board, reminiscing on his childhood days while growing up in Port Monmouth. He added, “I can’t find a resident, even if I looked, that is remotely in favor of this. Not one.”
Sue Kiley, who serves as the deputy mayor in Hazlet, doubled down on the possible health defects caused by a project of this magnitude. “Your mission states that you will provide safe, reliable and convenient service, and that you are committed to excellence; and I thank you for that. Can you say with certainty, that there will be no additional health risks to the residents, to your customers, to your employees if this moves forward?”
JCP&L vice president Mark Jones spoke in defense of the MCRP. “We understand that some residents have concerns about the project’s impact in the community, and we are here as part of our ongoing effort to keep the public informed of our plans,” he said.
Jones also said that the upgrades from the MCRP would help “strengthen and modernize” the electrical grid to the over 200,000 customers that JCP&L serves in Monmouth County.
In conjunction with PJM Interconnection, which operates the electric grid in New Jersey and in 12 other states plus the District of Columbia, the two utility companies found that local reliability concerns were the reason behind the project proposal.
“The Monmouth County Reliability Project is necessary to deliver reliable electric service to nearly 214,000 customers in Monmouth County,” said JCP&L spokesman Ron Morano in a statement to The Two River Times on Tuesday. “As requested, JCP&L is providing additional information to the New Jersey Transit Board of Directors including a copy of the petition.”
Residents threatened by the project also spoke up during the board meeting. Creating a line behind the podium, about two dozen had prepared oral statements. Among the most powerful of those was one read by Middletown resident Bernice Curto.
“We are literally sick over the project that is consuming our lives,” she said, as tears streamed down her face.
Curto, along with her husband Joe, planned to remortgage their house to pay for future medical bills. Yet now, with the impending project, she does not believe that will be a possibility.
Barbara Iannucci, who is Kanapka’s mother and the creator of RAGE from its original fight against JCP&L in 1989, said one thing was running through her mind when she spoke to the Board of Directors.
“Well, frustration would be the strongest emotion because of what we learned 20 years ago and what we know now,” she said by phone on Tuesday.
During the meeting, NJ Transit vice chairman Bruce Meisel actively questioned both the utility representatives and its opposition.
Prior to Kanapka’s speech, Meisel noted to the public that he wished to visit the affected towns of the MCRP.
“The people before you, the public officials, have expressed what they (the areas) look like, but there’s no substitute for action like seeing it, and I want to,” he said.
By December, Meisel said he plans to walk the route line with Kyrillos. RAGE representatives have already reached out to the senator’s office to provide help if needed.
The NJ Transit vice chairman also had words for Jones of JCP&L, whom he felt was unprepared for the presentation.
“You can’t just stand up there and talk in generalities, because for me, that’s just not going to work,” Meisel said.
The utility said it plans to keep an open line of communication with NJ Transit going forward.
“JCP&L is committed to keeping New Jersey Transit and the public informed about MCRP,” Morano said.
In what seems to be a long process and an important decision for the MCRP’s fate, RAGE members made their views clear to the NJ Transit Board of Directors.
“I don’t envy the decision that lies ahead of you,” RAGE’s Vilardi said. “It is a decision that could very well impact a lifetime. Today, or in the coming days, you will have to decide the future landscape of thousands upon thousands of people.”
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