Nancy Michael Shukaitis is a hero in her own time.
Beginning in the 1950s, she opposed a plan to dam the scenic middle Delaware River -- the largest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi -- that would create an immense reservoir at Tocks Island and submerge hundreds of homes and farms. At first she was a lonely voice facing down the powerful Army Corps of Engineers and politicians in four states. Twenty years later, she was a leader of an eclectic coalition that would be a lightning rod for the nascent American environmental movement. Shukaitis and her allies fought the plan all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court -- and won.
Now four decades on, Shukaitis, who is approaching 90 years old, is back at the barricades again. Her tireless efforts resulted in legislation that substantially enlarged the 70,000-acre Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area with its stunning range of flora and fauna, waterfalls, the Appalachian Trail and historic homes and farms only 75 miles from New York City. But that legacy is now threatened by a plan by two power companies to build high-voltage electric transmission lines strung between looming 197-foot-tall towers over clear cut forest through the heart of the recreation area that will dwarf everything in their path and be visible for many miles, despoiling a leafy, river-straddling panorama without peer in the region.
A coalition of New Jersey environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, has filed suit against the U.S. Park Service in federal District Court in Washington to stop work on the 500-kilovolt Susquehanna-Roseland Power Line, which would run 130 miles from Berwick in Columbia County in Northeastern Pennsylvania to Roseland in Essex County in North Jersey.
The coalition argues that the Park Service unlawfully granted permission for construction of the line on the existing 4.3-mile footprint of a much smaller 230-kilovolt line build in the 1920s, nearly a half century before the recreation area was created. This, it says, is in violation of the Park Service's own rules, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the Environmental Policy Act of 1969. They note that the Park Service itself acknowledges in its own power line impact study that it "would adversely affect protected resources within the park, in some instances irreversibly." The plaintiff's case would seem to be a slam dunk, but given today's anything-can-happen legal climate, it is not.
PPL of Pennsylvania and Public Service Gas & Electric of New Jersey, the power companies that would operate the line, claim it must be built because of an order from PJM, the regional electric grid operator, to upgrade existing lines to address power demand issues that were expected to occur in North Jersey by 2012. But not only have such issues not materialized, demand has dropped because of energy conservation, while four cleaner burning natural-gas powered generating stations will be coming on line in North Jersey in coming years that will provide more than enough electricity. As it is, electricity for the line would be generated by highly polluting coal-fired power stations in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.
The real -- if unstated -- reason that PPL and PSE&G are anxious to build the power line is that the utilities would be able to pass on the entire cost of the $750 million project to 51 million ratepayers in the PJM region while making a tidy profit. The electricity available because of the line would be sold by PSE&G to New York City at rates far greater than it charges its New Jersey customers. When PSE&G completes a long-term agreement to manage the Long Island Power Authority, electricity from the line also would be sold there at inflated rates.
Except for Shukaitis, the silence on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River has been deafening.
The editorial page of the hometown Pocono Record, which slavishly supported the Tocks plan, has remained silent. It's not hard to see why: One of the companies behind the power line is among the Record's biggest advertisers. When Shukaitis submitted an op-ed piece in opposition to the power line, she was told it would not run unless she personally paid for it in the form of an ad. Insulted, she nevertheless did.
Meanwhile, environmental and conservation groups in the Poconos are not taking a stand on the power line. Again, it's not hard to see why. The power companies have said they will create a multi-million dollar fund to purchase open space in return for desecrating the heart of the recreation area, and these groups seem to be in thrall of the prospect of "free" land.
The ugly underside of these bribe lands is that if the power companies get their way in the recreation area, this extraordinary precedent will allow them to wreak irreversible environmental havoc wherever they want in the region.
Take the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge and its diverse mosaic of wetland and upland habitats. The refuge was created in 2008 largely because of the efforts of the Friends of Cherry Valley organization, but the group has been a study in silence as the power line controversy has played out, although one of its board members, who happens to be a public official, has attacked the Sierra Club for its opposition to the power line.
Having made a deal with this particular devil by default, the group will be unable to stop a power company from putting a power line through the heart of the refuge or any other encroachment, for that matter. A dam -- yes, a dam, in this case to drive a hydroelectric power system -- may be lurking in the future at Wallenpaupack Bend, some 10 miles north of Tocks. This would be bitterly ironic since it was the very fight against that dam that was to leave the river and the verdant valley through which it flows in their natural state.
And in the latest potential assault on the river and recreation area, the Delaware River Basin Commission -- the four-state and federal authority that regulates water resources in the basin -- is being pressured to lift a moratorium on fracking, a controversial method in use elsewhere in Northeastern Pennsylvania to extract more natural gas using water and cancer-causing chemicals. A new study concludes that allowing fracking near the recreation area would have a negative environmental impact.
"We don't need enemies. They are us," Shukaitis told me several years ago with her customary prescience, aware that the battle against Tocks would not be the last she would have to fight. It was not.
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Peter Hall of the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call has written a fine article on Shukaitis. Click here for more on the Delaware River and Shukaitis's crusade against the Tocks Island dam. Click here for more on the fracking study. Shukaitis's extensive papers are at Lehigh University's Special Collections Department.
PHOTOGRAPH BY THE AUTHOR