What Lies Beneath

This is the story of something invisible.
A new power line linking the Connecticut and Long Island electrical grids
now lies six feet under the floor of New Haven Harbor. Depending on whom
you ask, its placement there last May was either a godsend to a nation in
the throes of an energy crisis or the nail in the coffin for a bountiful
local ecosystem and an age-old local industry. This is because also resting
beneath the water are beds of clams and oysters, where a number New Haven
area fishermen dredge up a living from out of the muck day after day. On
May 17, 2002, a specialized rig that had sailed from the Netherlands tore
a trench ten feet wide and 20 feet deep through prime oyster habitat on
the harbor floor 120 feet below the surface, making way for a 24 mile cable
that weighs 3,700 tons. Though it may be invisible, the massive cable is
hardly innocuous. Nor is it very effective: While the cross sound cable
is ready to start sending energy from Connecticut to power 400,000 Long
Island homes, not a single amp has passed beneath the ocean floor.

Larry Williams owns the rights to some of the shellfish beds disturbed
by the cable. A fisherman since 1973, Williams is one of the few who carry
out New Haven’s fading legacy as a booming port city. "I came from
nothing," Williams says about his life in the industry. "I’ve
made a study of it. I loved it. And I did well."

Williams tells the story of the cross sound cable as he works on his boat,
cleaning the mast and sandpapering the hull. Bamboo sticks line the floor
of the shell, surrounded by water-worn rope and bait-filled buckets. "What
happened here in New Haven is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,"
he says. "I know there’s a whole story yet to be told." This is
largely because the history of the cable is as murky as its new resting
place: It is a story of back-room politics and the struggle for power over
power.

The day of the cable’s installation, the Bush
Administration released its National Energy Plan. The document pointedly
criticized the state of Connecticut, and more specifically, the city of
New Haven. Connecticut was labeled "parochial" for "rejecting
efficient modes of energy transmission in the name of unsubstantiated local
concerns." Comparing the Northeast energy crisis to last year’s California
power allocation debacle, the national report pitched "energy restructuring"
as a solution, explaining that in order "to provide ample electricity
at reasonable prices, states must open their retail electricity markets
to competition."

That was the exact case made last January when a private New England-based
company proposed constructing a 330-megawatt cable beneath the sound to
the Connecticut Siting Council, a state agency that must approve all such
large-scale and potentially damaging infrastructure projects. The proposal
was rejected 9-0, a denial that was noticed as far away as Washington, where,
as the National Energy Policy later made clear, the policymakers of the
new administration took the veto as a direct challenge to their authority.

Four months later, the Cross Sound Cable Company, a new incarnation of
the same company, again proposed the cable project, now slightly modified.
This time, the cable would be constructed 100 feet farther inland and five
feet deeper than the cable proposed in January. In an almost complete reversal
of their previous stance, the Council approved the project by a vote of
8-1. What transpired between the first rejection in January and approval
on April 9th that changed the committee’s stance remains unclear-in part
because Vice President Dick Cheney, head of the administration’s energy
task force, refuses to reveal what role his committee played.

Shoreham, a small town 60 miles east of Manhattan,
lies on Long Island’s exclusive North Shore. Home to 3,000 residents, one
school district, and three country clubs, Shoreham also has one non-operational
power plant on its waterfront. When it was built in 1967, the facility was
supposed to be Long Island’s first and only nuclear power plant. But when
it neared completion in 1975, 15,000 local protesters gathered outside the
complex and brought the project to a halt. The plant, which cost $5.5 billion
to build, sits empty on a 419-acre site on the western bank of Wading River.
While New Haven tolerates four nuclear power plants in its immediate vicinity,
there is not a single nuclear power plant on all of Long Island, despite
rapid growth and scant resources to satisfy a growing demand for energy.
On the site where the Shoreham nuclear plant, the Cross Sound cable comes
ashore.

The Cross Sound Cable Company insists that the cable, despite its local
impact, serves a greater good. Their website claims that "wherever
good electric ties can link regions, the power companies can aid each other,
and energy is produced at the lowest possible cost. Since consumers directly
feel the cost and reliability of electricity, a project like the cross sound
cable that strengthens the pool also helps the consumer." While the
cable has been promoted for its potential to facilitate a mutual exchange
of energy, in reality power can only go in one direction at a time: from
cash-strapped New Haven to power-hungry Long Island. Cross Sound Cable Company
spokeswoman Rita Bowlby explains this matter of factly: "You either
get it or you lose it." Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal,
a staunch opponent of the cable, is less accepting: "The cable will
do nothing for Connecticut. The power is going south. It’s going to Long
Island."

Underneath the technical jargon of the cross sound cable’s purpose and
professed benefits lies a strategic business deal. What the Cross Sound
Cable Company’s website does not mention is that the cable is the first
power line in the nation that is owned by a private company that is allowed
to sell electricity to the highest bidder. In this case, the highest bidder
is the Long Island Power Authority, to whom the Cross Sound Cable Company
is selling electricity at the rate of up to $300,000 each day.

400 oyster harvesters work the north shore
of the sound, generating $60 million annually for the regional economy,
putting them first in the nation in revenue and second in production. When
the proposal for the cross sound cable first appeared in January, the Siting
Council probably had those statistics in mind. But in a struggle that consisted
primarily of one company’s word against another’s, the task of predicting
the actual effects of the cable proved difficult. An environmental assessment
by a third party had yet to take place, and even protesters could offer
only a vague idea of the cable’s concrete effects.

At the time of the first proposal, however, the Siting Council did know
that there were certain economic effects that went beyond damage to the
state’s once booming fishing industry. New Haven Harbor is currently 35
feet deep. Other major harbors of the eastern seaboard are generally 15
to 20 feet deeper. Nearby New York’s, for example, is 55 feet deep. Remaining
competitive as a harbor will inevitably require deepening. The cable’s construction
makes an expansion of New Haven Harbor impossible.

The potential environmental implications and damage to New Haven’s already
declining position as a port city make the first unanimous rejection easy
to understand. The Siting Council ruled that the cable’s alleged benefits
were not sufficient to risk the potential repercussions. For a while, it
looked like the cable had been defeated.

But by protecting its own interest, Connecticut found itself in the national
spotlight. In the National Energy Plan released in May, the Siting Council’s
January decision is cited as a case in point of why federal authority should
be able to override local concerns in the construction of new electric transmission
lines. By rejecting the cable, the Siting Council followed a law requiring
that the benefits of a proposed transmission facility go to the individual
state in which it is located, rather than an entire region. With President
Bush’s assertion of federal authority comes the power of a national administration
to determine whether a transmission line can go through a state that has
no need for it-an interesting change of heart for a dyed-in-the-wool states-rights
conservative who also happens to be an energy tycoon. "We are now in
an energy crisis," Bush said early in his presidency. "What the
people need to hear loud and clear is that we’re running out of energy in
America." Yet Rita Bowlby, spokeswoman for the Cross Sound Cable Company,
vehemently denies that the cable is "the embodiment of a shifting national
policy," as the New Haven Register labeled it last summer. "This
project has nothing to do with the national level," she says. "It
is not a government project. It is a private project. It is just a business
deal." The apostles of energy deregulation make the same case: It is
a business deal, which allows competition in the marketplace to lower prices
and generate innovation. The one certainty is that it is, if nothing else,
a great deal for business: The Cross Sound Cable Company stands to make
$800 million.

Outraged by the smoke-and-mirrors, Connecticut
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal referred to the Siting Council’s turnaround
as "completely unjustified." "None of the facts were different,"
he said, "and the benefits to Connecticut consumers in the reliability
of electricity were even less…this was more of a political calculation
than a review of the merits." Blumenthal credits the project’s realization
to a power greater than his own. "Fundamentally, the national administration
has given great encouragement to cable operators," he alleged. "Both
directly and indirectly, the federal agency should not be one sided at the
expense of Northeast consumers."

After the Siting Council’s approval of the project in April, one step remained
before construction could begin: securing permission from three fisheries
based in New Haven Harbor to lay cable across their property. With a payment
of $5 million as an incentive-just over one half of one percent of the total
$800 million that Cross Sound Cable Company stood to profit from the deal-Briarpatch
Enterprises, Tallmadge Brothers, and Fair Haven Clam and Lobster agreed
to a settlement, the terms of which have yet to be disclosed.

In defense of the cross sound cable, Bowlby refers to a regulated cable
that already exists beneath the sound between Norwalk, Connecticut and Northport,
Long Island. While serving as a functional transmission line for the past
five years, that cable also elicited the second largest criminal environmental
penalty in history, second only to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The Cross
Sound Cable Company did not finish its project without its own share of
violations. According to regulations set forth by the Department of Environmental
Protection, the cable was to be laid 46 feet below the shoreline. After
its construction, the Army Corps of Engineers discovered that the cable
lies as shallow as three feet in seven areas. The cable is now idle as legislators
debate whether or not to even turn it on. In July, the Long Island Power
Authority appealed to National Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to allow
the operation of the cable despite the violations. To Blumenthal’s dismay,
Abraham granted the request, authorizing the cable to operate in the event
of a severe energy crisis.

Kenneth Warner is among those whose future
livelihood hangs in the balance. His view on jurisdiction over the harbor
is simple and to the point. "That’s my channel," he tells me.
"That’s my channel they’re going through. And we’ve fought it from
the beginning." A marine pilot responsible for steering ships safely
into their moorings in New Haven Harbor, he claims to know the unseen intricacies
of the channel. The cable’s current position, he says, hinders him from
safely and effectively leading ships to port. "Anchoring is our last
line of defense when we bring a ship in," he said. "If one of
us drops an anchor, it will snag that cable." While the Cross Sound
Cable Company offered the pilots compensation for any expenses they might
incur, they do not assume liability should the cable get snagged, even where
it is illegally buried three feet down. Unlike the company, however, Warner
cannot afford to wait. "Their offer is all well and good, but I will
have to anchor. And if nothing changes, I should probably declare bankruptcy,
turn up my tent, and go away."

When Warner claims ownership of the channel, he does so not for himself,
but for the public. "That channel was dug with public funds,"
he states with calm insistence. "Our tax dollars pay for that. Is some
corporation really allowed to come in and put a cable on the bottom of a
channel that will destroy the reason why that channel was there in the first
place?" He’s not the only one asking that question. Larry Williams
is similarly troubled: "I know what happened was wrong." He continues,
"I love my job. I love the water. And I thank the state for getting
me where I am." But Williams assumes the responsibility of standing
up for himself during a time when the interests of those in authority are
suspect. "If one of those fishermen had said no to their offer, just
one, it would have been an entirely different story." His mouth twisting
into a smile, he continues. "I’m waiting for someone to come offer
me millions of dollars to go through my land so I can say no. Then we’ll
see what happens."


Benita Singh, a junior in Branford College, is on the staff
of TNJ..

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