In recommendations to the Board of Environmental Protection, DEP staff rejected most of the arguments from power line critics. A meeting to discuss the appeals has been delayed due to COVID-19 concerns.
By Tux Turkel Staff Writer
Staffers at Maine’s top environmental agency disagree with opponents of a Central Maine Power-backed transmission line project who have argued that the project’s construction permit should not have been granted.
A much-anticipated meeting to review appeals to a conditional permit to build the $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) power line was unexpectedly postponed on Monday, but a staff report filed in advance of the meeting rejects most of the opposition’s arguments.
Half the Maine Board of Environmental Protection’s members, including the chair, have either tested positive for COVID-19 or had direct exposure, according to a statement issued Monday by the board. The seven-member citizen board hears appeals of environmental licenses, among other duties.
The meeting was scheduled to take place Tuesday and Wednesday in Farmington. It will be rescheduled to a later date, the board said, possibly in late June.
But documents assembled for the long-delayed meeting reveal that staff of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which advises the BEP, largely rejected the arguments made by opponents of the project regarding impacts such as scenic and recreational uses, soil erosion, wildlife and wetland habitat.
The staff also suggested there’s no need for public hearings on the appeals. But it did recommend some new conditions dealing with tree-trimming along the corridor, as well as a decommissioning plan for the 53-mile stretch closest to the Quebec border, known as Segment 1.
The postponement comes a week after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments on the legality of a new law meant to hobble the project, as well as a challenge to a lease NECEC obtained to cross public lands. Rulings are expected by early this summer.
Power corridor developer defends embattled project before Maine’s highest court
Project opponents on Monday downplayed the importance of both developments. They said the upcoming court rulings dilute the impact of the BEP process, which has been moving slowly since 2020.
“That whole meeting was a colossal waste of time,” said Tom Saviello, the lead petitioner for the Question 1 anti-corridor campaign that led to the new law last November. “At this point it doesn’t matter, because the court is going to decide whether the project goes forward or not.”
NEWS GETS MIXED RECEPTION
An attorney representing local residents opposed to the project, organized in the case as the West Forks Group, cautioned that the recommendation came from the DEP staff before the board had done its own independent review or decided whether to hold hearings on any of the appeals.
“This is far from a final decision and order from the board,” said the attorney, Elizabeth Boepple. “We fully expect that reason will prevail when the board takes this up. We believe the board will understand the necessity to hold public hearings, particularly in light of the already cut corridor and the more than likely outcome that at least a portion of Section 1 will never become operational.”
At a minimum, Boepple said, a decommissioning and restoration plan must be reviewed, assessed and approved.
But the hydroelectric power line project’s developer saw the staff recommendations as a positive development and a form of vindication. It released a statement saying, in part:
“The recommended board order prepared by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is yet another example of how the independent regulators at the local, state, and federal level have reviewed the (project), weighed the expert evidence and public input, and determined the project meets the highest environmental standards and is the best interests of Mainers.”
The company called the appeals “just another attack on public servants and evidence in an effort to delay and derail the project and protect the bottom lines of out of state fossil fuel companies. …”
Monday’s postponement was the latest twist in a process that began in 2017, when Central Maine Power, which along with NECEC Transmission is a subsidiary of Avangrid Inc., first proposed the power line project. It emerged as a quick pivot by Massachusetts officials and electric utilities after a similar venture in New Hampshire was blocked by state opposition.
Since then, the project has turned into Maine’s most contentious environmental flashpoint in decades. Years of government review, citizen input, campaigns and negotiations have seemed only to harden public opinion. There’s little agreement on what impact the transmission corridor – which already is partially built but on hold per DEP order – would have on the region’s renewable energy and climate change goals, electric rates, Maine’s prized forestlands and future power ventures.
STATE STAFF BACKS PERMIT
Much has happened since project opponents first challenged the DEP permit. Requests to have the BEP review the agency’s approval date to June of 202o.
That’s when the Natural Resources Council of Maine filed an appeal with the board regarding the DEP’s May 11, 2020, conditional approval of CMP’s application to build the power line project.
On Sept. 25, 2020, NextEra Energy Resources and the West Forks Group each filed appeals and requested BEP hearings. Then, on Jan. 4, 2021, the Natural Resources Council filed an appeal on the DEP commissioner’s conditional approval to transfer CMP’s application to NECEC Transmission LLC.
The BEP decided to consolidate these four appeals and consider them all at the now-canceled two-day meeting.
As part of a packet of materials assembled for the meeting, the DEP put together a staff recommendation in the form of a draft board order. Although it’s just an advisory document, the 77-page report reaches noteworthy conclusions. They include:
“The licensee provided adequate evidence of financial capacity and technical ability to develop the project in a manner consistent with state environmental standards.”
“The licensee made adequate provision for fitting the development harmoniously into the existing natural environment and the development will not adversely affect existing uses, scenic character, air quality, water quality or other natural resources in the municipality or in neighboring municipalities (as long as specific requirements and conditions are met).”
The added conditions suggested by the staff deal largely with tree-trimming details along the corridor and are meant to protect wildlife and scenery.
The NECEC project is designed to bring 1,200 megawatts of power from Hydro-Quebec in Canada to the New England electric grid over a 145-mile route and through a converter station in Lewiston.
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