By JOHN T. WARD
Thwarted from speaking two months ago, hundreds of opponents of a proposed high-voltage electricity transmission line from Aberdeen to Red Bank came electrified with anger Tuesday night.
The occasion was a public comment session at Brookdale Community College on the Jersey Central Power & Light Company proposal, which calls for support poles as tall as 210 feet running for 10 miles along the North Jersey Coast Line railroad, ending at a substation in Red Bank.
There, in the half-full 2,000-seat Collins Arena, Administrative Law Judge Gail Cookson held a second hearing, scheduled after hundreds of would-be commenters were turned away from the first, held at Middletown North High School in January, which was filled to capacity.
Noting that the first meeting was heavy on comments by company and government officials, Cookson said Tuesday’s would be “for the public who want to speak,” and recognized in advance that some of it would be “emotional.”
Indeed it was, which many of those in attendance wearing the bright red t-shirts of a citizen’s group, Residents Against Giant Electric, or RAGE. And one after another, they introduced themselves by citing the distance of their homes from the line and noting that they were not paid to be there.
They came armed with a variety of concerns: about what they said were potentially cancerous effects of the system’s electromagnetic field; the risk of double catastrophes in the event of a train derailment hitting one of the monopoles that would carry the line above the existing rail line; the negative effect on property values, and more.
“Judge, if you had two houses, one that has power lines behind it and one that doesn’t, which would you choose to live in?” asked a man who said his home’s value had dropped precipitously since JCP&L unveiled its plan last May.
Others questioned the utility company’s stated rationale for proposing the line, which is to reduce the frequency and duration of outages for some 214,000 Monmouth County customers.
Justus Kenney of Middletown, accompanied to the lectern by his young daughter, told Cookson he had calculated that JCP&L’s existing transmission system had a “99.998 percent uptime” over the past 20 years, meaning the company’s forecasted investment of $111 million would, at best, yield “a mere two one-hundredths of a percent improvement in reliability.”
“The corporate greed here is so transparent that it alarms me this project has gotten as far as it has,” said Alexa Glynn, who grew up on Patriots Way, 540 feet from the tracks. “JCP&L wants to give us something we don’t want, while asking us pay for it.”
Glynn attended the hearing with her cousin, Red Bank Councilman Erik Yngstrom. The borough has joined with other municipalities along the proposed path in opposing the plan.
Also present from Red Bank was Councilwoman Linda Schwabenbauer, who said she was “horrified” when she saw a Google Earth presentation, prepared by opponents based on JCP&L filings, showing the number and height of the monopoles carrying the line.
“I don’t think it does any good for Red Bank, and I think the potential for harm is very high,” she told redbankgreen.
Attendees were not allowed to bring purses, backpacks or even bottled water into the arena, forcing some to make long, angry marches from the front door back to their cars.
“I just want to make it clear that was not my decision, nor any of the parties’,” Cookson told the crowd, of the security measure. “Not JCP&L or anyone else.”
Once inside, they were treated to free pizza. Marco Russo of Ray’s Real Pizza in Hazlet baked and donated 100 tomato pies, and stood handing them out, a slice at a time, in a effort to “show support, not just with words” for RAGE, he said.
Cookson plans to hold an evidentiary hearing on the proposal, without public comment, starting Tuesday at its Newark office, before making a recommendation to the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. Meantime, she said, she will continue to accept written comments sent to her office.
The proposal also requires approval by New Jersey Transit.