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Station to station: Residents tour Jamesport facility

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO | Island residents and town officials at the perimeter of the PSEG Jamesport substation on a town-sponsored field trip to the site Thursday morning.
AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO | Island residents and town officials at the perimeter of the PSEG Jamesport substation on a town-sponsored field trip to the site Thursday morning.

The facility is in Jamesport, up a dirt road screened by trees from Sound Avenue.

A chain link fence topped by barbed wire defines the perimeter. The other side of the fence is a complex of huge, gray transformers and circuit breakers. Lights are placed on 30-foot high poles and there are several lighting rods, looking like whisks, placed around the facility. A red sign on the metal fence states: “Electrical Equipment Inside — Can Shock, Burn or Cause death.”

Welcome to the PSEG Jamesport substation, which takes very high voltage electricity brought in by cables and brings it down to a lower voltage so it can be distributed to residences and businesses. The same service would take place at an Island substation if PSEG gets approval to build one on an acre of town-owned land next to the Shelter Island Historical Society on South Ferry Road.

If it’s built, it would look and operate like the Jamesport site.

Councilman Ed Brown, at the fence line of the facility on a July 17 town-sponsored field trip to Jamesport, said seeing it up close “solidifies my position. This is an industrial site.”

Mr. Brown is the only Town Board member to have come out publicly against an Island substation located on South Ferry Road.

About 20 residents took the trip, some in their own vehicles and some on a bus provided by the town. All members of the board were present, along with Town Attorney Laury Dowd, Town Clerk Dorothy Ogar, Police Chief James Read and Commissioner of Public Works Jay Card Jr.

What’s the difference?

There are no nearby residences at the Jamesport site, which several people immediately noted was a major difference from the proposed Island site, which will be close to 10 to 12 houses. Jeff Brewer said his property line is about 50 feet away from the town land off Route 114, the site of the old highway barn.

In addition, neighbors of the proposed Island substation site are on a steep hill overlooking it. Several neighbors said no amount of landscaping to screen the facility will work.

They’ll see it. And they’ll hear it.

PSEG personnel were on hand to listen to questions from the residents on noise, health, possibilities of accidents and other concerns. No minds seemed to have been changed by the visit.

Former Supervisor Hoot Sherman, who took a seat on the bus for the ride back to the Island after the tour, said, “The only change is we’re more adamant” against the proposed substation.

The PSEG representatives politely answered all questions and concerns and were honest and up front when they didn’t have answers, saying they would look into the matters.

Ken Lynn, a PSEG project manager, told the Reporter, “I understand. If you’re living next door to [a substation] you’d be visibly upset. You’d have to be an oddball not to be.”

Reasons why

PSEG representatives have told the Town Board at two public meetings that a substation is essential to supply Shelter Islands’ electricity in case of emergencies and for the long term.

In late May, they pitched the idea of a facility after a disastrous attempt by LIPA last year to run another power line under the bay from Crescent Beach to Southold. That project was canceled last autumn and is now the subject of lawsuit.

Drilling another conduit under the bay for a second cable from the North Fork is an option to ensure reliability of electricity to the Island, but PSEG officials have disparaged that idea in light of the catastrophe of the $9 million LIPA scheme.

Drilling another pipeline, PSEG maintains, could cost as much as $20 million if another route, that would be longer than the abandoned one, is needed. A remaining cable from the North Fork and one from the South Fork have adequate capacity to provide electricity to the Island under normal conditions. But in the case of a severe storm, for example, the Island could be in danger of losing power for an extended period.

Currently, power is distributed from substations in Southold and Bridgehampton that then comes to the Island via underwater cable. It then travels underground following Route 114.

The two distribution cables meet at the old highway barn site, next to the Historical Society. The plan is then to tap those cables and run the power back to the substation, less than half a mile from the highway, where it can be converted for Island use.

The town-owned parcel is an ideal and inexpensive spot to build a substation, according to PSEG, since tapping a distribution cable and running a line to a facility costs anywhere from $5 to $7 million a mile.

Sounding off

Some people heard a light, clearly electric hum in the air outside the Jamesport substation. Others heard nothing.

Chief Read didn’t hear any electrical sound because, he said later, “background noise exceeded any noise or hum that the substation was producing at the fence line where we all stood.”

He took a sound reading and found that “the background noise of predominantly road traffic was approximately 54-55 [decibels].”

The proposed Island facility would be at 47 decibels, according to PSEG.

Chief Read checked the sound at the proposed Island site at 8 a.m. the day of the field trip and got a background noise level of approximately 45-50 decibels. “That included birds chirping, planes flying over, engines turning on and off, and cars passing on Route 114,” the chief said.

Mr. Sherman asked PSEG engineer Kelly Vaughn if the sound fluctuates.

“It does go up,” Ms. Vaughn said, adding that 47 decibels is the same as “moderate rainfall.”

But that didn’t mean it would sound like rain, just that it would be at the same pitch, and as Mr. Sherman said later, hearing a persistent sound “is how they torture people in prisons.”

As for fluctuating sound, resident Howard Johansen, who is a retired electrical engineer, said that on a hot Saturday in August, when the demand for electricity is at its peak, the sound will be much louder that it was on the mild Thursday morning of the field trip.

Health and safety

The power company has shown compelling data that a substation won’t affect the public’s health.

A PSEG consultant, who is an expert on electromagnetic fields (EMF), has told the Town Board that a study he conducted recently at a substation in the up-Island community of Bohemia, similar to the proposed facility here, showed that a few hundred feet from the perimeter of the substation the EMF measurement was negligible.

In addition, in 1990 Congress directed the National Institute of Environmental Health Services to report on all EMF studies available. In 2007 the World Health Organization (WHO did the same. The conclusions from both reports are that EMFs are not known to cause any disease. The WHO’s conclusion states, “… current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.”

The subject of accidents came up at the Jamesport site, especially what happens if a fire breaks out.

Substations have been known to have explosions and fires that burn for hours. One reason for the lengthy fires is that firefighters are trained not to risk their lives if there are no other lives at risk, so many times substations are allowed to just burn out.

Two summers ago, a Nassau County substation caught fire. It was reported that neighbors heard loud explosions coming from the site. The police reported that a leak was responsible for igniting the blaze.

In January a multiple alarm fire blazed up at PSEG substation — different in some respects from the proposed Island facility — in Branchburg, New Jersey that burned for three and a half hours, with firefighters still putting out hot spots six hours after the initial eruption. People at the scene described a large and smoky fire. Several people reported loud explosions before the initial blaze and after the fire started.

Visitors to the Jamesport site brought up the question of material leaking into the Island’s aquifer in case of an accident. There are toxic elements associated with substations; as Mr. Johansen noted, cables that bring in power are insulated with toxic materials.

Ed Aldrich, environmental permit coordinator for PSEG, pointed to “containment pads” under the transformers and generators, and said they have “110 percent capacity” for any oil or other liquids that might leak.

Island resident Kimberlea Rea noted that most of the containment pads are concrete, which is porous and subject to cracks. Later, on the bus back to the Island, Mr. Brewer wondered if there was an accident during a heavy rain, plus firefighters laying foam on a fire, would the capacity to hold liquids be breached?

A matter of trust

In a conversation at the site with Elizabeth Pedersen, president of the Historical Society, Councilman Paul Shepherd said “there’s always the possibility of accidents, but the probability is pretty low.”

Mr. Shepherd said he hasn’t explored all the options for an Island substation. “It doesn’t have to be on town property,” he added.

“Once they come in, you can’t get rid of them,” Ms. Pedersen said, referring to the power company. “They’re here to stay.”

“It has to be trust and verify,” Mr. Shepherd said. “There is no trust with public utilities. I get that.”