MIDDLETOWN — A determined group of Monmouth County residents believes it has a cheaper and safer alternative to Jersey Central Power & Light's proposal for a powerful 10-mile transmission line from Aberdeen to Red Bank along the NJ Transit right-of-way.

Residents Against Giant Electric, which has spent more than $400,000 in its fight to stop "monster power lines" from being built in folks' backyards, claims JCP&L can solve the same problems and provide the same service to customers without the construction of giant poles and lines that could affect residents' home values and health.

At a press conference Tuesday inside Middletown Public Library, RAGE President Rachael Kanapka shared details of the group's legal brief submitted to the Administrative Law Judge handling the case and offered insight into the campaign's efforts over the past 17 months.

"Given all we’ve uncovered, JCP&L's proposal to build this line is at best incompetent and weak, and at worst, devious, underhanded and greedy," Kanapka said. "Only because of our strong opposition did the curtain get pulled back to show what they were doing behind the scenes."

According to Kanapka, the public was duped from the start. Marketing by the utility noted the Monmouth County Reliability Project was needed to "reduce outages" among other reasons, but the county has only lost power for eight hours total over the past 30 years due to transmission line issues, she said.

When JCP&L submitted its petition to the Board of Public Utilities in 2016, the utility said the project is needed to fix a code violation at the Red Bank substation, or a P7.

RAGE feels JCP&L is more motivated by the promise of financial returns. Transmission lines are a big moneymaker for utilities, Kanapka said, based on a formula set by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

"If a utility can get a transmission line, they and their shareholders have won the lottery and the ratepayers pay the prize," she said.

Kanapka said JCP&L told the public at open houses in June 2016 that the utility "had no idea yet where the actual poles would go." But, through use of the Open Public Records Act, RAGE learned that JCP&L provided to NJ Transit exact proposed pole locations, and even shared Google Earth 3D representations of how the lines would look, using shots of neighborhoods and photos from the proposed 10-mile stretch.

It was also uncovered, Kanapka said, that JCP&L started discussing this proposal with NJ Transit, and the use of their right-of-way, in 2012 — years before JCP&L submitted its petition. As part of the BPU's evaluation of projects, they want to see that a utility thoroughly considered alternatives. JCP&L only looked at alternative siting options for a transmission line, Kanapka said, but no electrical alternatives to solve the P7 issue.

"We’ll let everybody draw their own conclusions, but it seems very much like the entire route study was done after-the-fact as a way for JCP&L to be able to check off the 'we looked at alternatives' box," she said.

NJ Transit has not yet said whether it intends to let JCP&L use its property for the project should it be approved. Once all briefs are filed within the next two weeks, the judge overseeing the case will have 45 days to make a recommendation to the BPU on whether or not the project is necessary, or request an extension. The BPU then makes the final decision.

During testimony, RAGE unveiled its alternative to the transmission line plan — an alternative the group says would cost 70 percent less, and present less danger to the community.

The group's solution, backed by a power flow analysis and an engineering expert, includes the addition of two STATCOM devices — each about the size of an RV — at the Red Bank substation. It also calls for updating 11 of the existing 34.5 kV lines coming out of Red Bank.

"That's it — all you need to do is update some existing lines that probably need replacing anyway, and add two big boxes to Red Bank, Kanapka said. "Do these two things and the P7 violation goes away, for a total estimated cost of just $30 million."

In its most recent estimate, JCP&L said their project could cost $111 million, and that does not include the fee for usage of NJ Transit's property.

According to JCP&L spokesman Ron Morano, the utility strongly disagrees with RAGE's proposal.

"The alternative 'proposed by RAGE would be more expensive to construct, more disruptive to JCP&L's customers in Monmouth County, and result in a less robust electrical system than the MCRP," Morano said.

Morano said JCP&L is confident the Administrative Law Judge will rule in favor of the project.

Appalled by the findings of the RAGE campaign, state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) called on the BPU to investigate JCP&L for misleading the public in its push to construct a new transmission line.

State Sen. Jennifer Beck
State Sen. Jennifer Back calls on the Board of Public Utilities to investigate Jersey Central Power & Light (Dino Flammia, Townsquare Media NJ)

"They should be fined and sued and we should hold them accountable for misrepresenting this project to our residents," Beck said at the press event. "If the BPU is unwilling to take this up and unwilling to conduct an investigation, then I will call on the Attorney General to do so."

Responding to Beck's comments, Morano said "that type of rhetoric is unfortunate." The BPU said it could not comment while this matter is pending before a judge.

According to Congressman Frank Pallone, another vocal opponent on the MCRP, RAGE's fight highlights a national problem in which the federal process is "too oriented toward allowing" transmission lines as a way to achieve reliability, when there are less costly and more effective ways of doing so.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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