Utility’s Substation Expansion Plans Move Ahead Despite Concerns

OCEAN CITY – Following a long public hearing, a favorable recommendation will move forward to the Mayor and City Council to allow the Delmarva Power and Light (DP&L) substation to expand on 138th Street in the Caine Woods community.

Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith began the hearing by taking a look back at the various changes the substation has gone under over the years.

In 1996 the easterly portion of the property where the substation exists included two vacant lots, which was subdivided into four lots and four dwellings were built. DP&L has since purchased those properties and demolished them to expand the substation.

According to DP&L Senior Public Affairs Manager Jim Smith, in order to enhance electric service reliability and maintain a stronger and more consistent flow of energy in the Ocean City area, DP&L must install a Static Var Compensator (SVC) adjacent to its 138th Street substation.

The SVC is similar to a booster pump that helps keep electrical pressure (voltage) constant across the Delmarva Power system. While the result will be increased electric service reliability for customers in eastern Worcester and Sussex counties, this $26 million project will mainly benefit Ocean City customers.

The project includes a new 15-foot wall, currently a wire fence, around the existing substation and expansion that will be 6.8 inches thick and made out of reinforced precast concrete with a textured face to resemble stone in the color of sandstone.

Sound and Electric Magnetic Field (EMF) studies have been conducted. Based on the sound study, DP&L expects the sound level from the expanded substation to be comparable to what exists currently.

“Delmarva Power is committed not only to this community but to providing a reliable and safe service. We have provided it for many years in Ocean City and providing reliable energy is of utmost importance to the company and this project is one from a reliability and sustainability point of view, it really is a necessity based on the studies that we have done and the studies that PJM Interconnection has done to keep voltage at necessary levels and keep the lights on here especially during the summer time when the economy depends on it,” Jim Smith said.

City Engineer Terry McGean testified that Ocean City’s electric lines came to a head in 1999 with rolling black outs in town and at the same time the town was going through electric deregulation. Since then, DP&L has made improvements within the town.

“We have not had the rolling blackouts that we had experienced so in terms of ‘keeping the lights on’ things are much better, but in terms of some of the other issues, particularly voltage fluctuations, or what we call phase drops, we still see quite a few and as I said that can cause considerable damage to our equipment,” McGean said.

McGean explained that when DP&L first came to Ocean City with the project two site were examined, a vacant lot behind the municipal parking lot on 100th Street, or the expansion of the substation on 138th Street. The expansion became the ideal option because of the existing infrastructure and would have been the most disruptive to build.

Caine Woods resident Vince Gisriel, a former councilman, opposes the project and pointed out that while DP&L claims the EMF will not impact residents there are other surrounding facilities with occupancy, such as the adjacent water plant and other commercial properties.

“My concern is while they may be addressing issues on the residential side, which they should be applauded for that, it leaves the working people in these facilities that much more vulnerable in my judgment,” Gisriel said. “Most of the studies that have been done indicate that low level EMFs generally are not harmful to people but there are cautions and the jury is still out on it. For example,  electric fields that run through our lines can be blocked by walls, buildings and trees but EMFs are not blocked by walls etc. so the 15-foot wall that is proposed may not be a block at all in that respect, it may hide the plant but it is not a block per se.”

Donna Moulton, who lives on 138th Street, pointed out the DP&L’s EMF study, was based on calculations, not specific readings.

“You may ask why I bought here when the power plant was there,” she said. “I had known readings that the seller I bought from gave to me and I was comfortable with those readings.”

Nearby resident Richard Hansen expressed concerns about the health issues and also felt more comfortable with having more specific readings over calculations.

“We would like to see some guarantees from the city or the power company that we are not going to have health problems years from now,” Hansen said. “I would rather put the thing on 100th Street even though it is going to cost additional money. “

Dr. William Bailey with DP&L, a scientist who has been involved in bio-electromagnetic research for the past 30 years, came before the room to clear the air. Bailey said that the World Health Organization (WHO) has studied animals who have been exposed over their entire lifetime to EMF levels up to 50,000 times higher than the average level that would be in a home. At the end of their lifetime, the scientists examine every tissue of their body and did not find access to cancer in any tissue of the animal. These studies have been done in Japan, the United States, and Canada, and they have all come to the same conclusion that there is no access of cancer or health defect in animals with lifelong exposures.

“With regard to issues about health, I think the entire review of the WHO should be considered is the latest version … they have not found that exposure to EMF at levels we find in our environment, whether they are produced by our appliances in our home or by the proposed or existing substation cause adverse effects on health,” Bailey said.

Three hours into the meeting, the public hearing was closed, and Commission member Lauren Taylor began the deliberation.

“The project is definitely needed …  besides city property I know several business owners who have suffered from loss of equipment, disrupted equipment, and it has damaged business. It has been an economic problem for Ocean City that needs to be solved,” she said.

Taylor concluded that according to DP&L’s testimony it is not a health issue and even at its maximum EMF levels it is well below acceptable levels.

“If the information presented in the public hearing is not correct or has been given to us with fraudulent information, then the company would be subject to action based on that,” she said.

Commission member Peck Miller agreed and said that as far as the surrounding wall and landscaping goes it will be required to be maintained regularly.

“If you truly do that, it is going to be a much nicer façade than what you have currently,” Miller said.

Commission Chair Pam Buckley said for 23 years on the board she has protected single-family neighborhoods but there is no way around having the substation expanded.

“We certainly have to take the experts’ knowledge and that they are deciphering the information correctly and that it is not a health risk, and as far as the noise and the lighting, all of that is controlled by our zoning ordinances and they will have to abide by those, as well as keeping up with the landscaping,” Buckley said.

The commissions voted unanimously to recommend to the Mayor and City Council the approval of the conditional use to expand the DP&L substation on 138th Street and the company will have to return for a site plan approval before building permits are issued.