Central Maine Power Co.’s proposal to upgrade the reliability of its transmission system faces a new threat: wetlands.

The Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club says the $1.6 billion project would destroy 385 acres of wetlands and 1,200 linear feet of streams. In a letter dated March 15, it told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the agency can’t approve construction if there are alternatives that reduce the impact on the environment.

A strict standard under the Clean Water Act says the corps cannot issue wetlands permits for any project if a “less environmentally damaging, practicable alternative” exists.

In the Sierra Club’s view, CMP could meet the objectives of its new line with non-transmission alternatives. The group says it will take legal action, if needed, to enforce the law.

“This isn’t a battle between CMP and the Sierra Club,” said Sandy Amborn, a club committee member. “It’s a classic case of protecting the environment.”

CMP is disputing the Sierra Club’s conclusions. The utility has studied non-transmission alternatives and found them technically and financially inferior, said John Carroll, a CMP spokesman.

In recent weeks, Carroll said, the project has received a draft permit from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, an indication to him that the design is on the right track.

To offset the project’s effects on wetlands, CMP has included a plan to preserve or enhance 3,345 acres of wetlands in Maine, donate 1,420 acres of the scenic Kennebec Gorge for recreation and put more than $1.5 million into a DEP fund that’s used for conservation and wetland restoration.

The result, CMP says, will be “no-net-loss” of wetlands for a project that covers 360 miles and includes 13 substations.

“We think that’s pretty good,” Carroll said.

The Sierra Club is a national conservation group with 5,000 members and supporters in Maine. Its challenge comes as CMP’s case for the transmission line moves toward a decision by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, whose primary approval is needed for the project to go forward.

A key staff opinion on the case is due next month, and the commission is likely to decide later this spring. CMP wants to upgrade an aging network that runs from Orrington to the New Hampshire border.

Thousands of construction workers would be needed, making it one of the largest energy projects in state history. CMP says failure to move ahead soon with the Maine Power Reliability Program will cost Maine jobs and money, and make the state more vulnerable to blackouts.

Opponents, including environmental groups and residents near the transmission corridor, point to a PUC staff advisory report released last fall. It concluded that Maine could have a reliable power grid for much less money and with far fewer transmission towers than CMP is proposing.

The Sierra Club has embraced that analysis. It says CMP could do the job with non-transmission alternatives that combine energy efficiency, smart-grid functions and a proposal to generate electricity from solar panels to meet peak demand on hot summer days.

The solar alternative is being promoted by a Portland-based company, Grid Solar, which is trying to undermine CMP’s case before the PUC. In a separate letter dated Feb. 9, Grid Solar raises similar wetlands and Clean Water Act issues with the Army Corps.

Wetlands are nurseries for fish, habitat for wildlife and buffers against floods in populated watersheds. But marshes and swamps continue to be filled in, and the Sierra Club says its stance on the transmission corridor reflects its broader dedication to fighting any loss of wetlands.

Amborn acknowledged that the group has a second motivation: promoting what it calls a progressive energy policy in Maine that favors renewables, efficiency and steps to reduce emissions associated with climate change.

“This is a wetlands issue, but it’s also an energy issue,” Amborn said. “We’re serious about protecting wetlands and supporting a more diverse energy plan for Maine.”

It’s not clear how the Army Corps will respond to the information. Repeated attempts to reach Jay Clement, manager at the Maine project office of the Army Corps, were unsuccessful.

But the general counsel at Grid Solar, Steve Hinchman, said federal regulators won’t be able to sidestep the Clean Water Act standard.

“This is not a little road bump,” he said. “We’re astonished that CMP has been so cavalier about the wetlands permit.”

The Army Corps will have to do a deeper review of alternatives than the Maine DEP did, Hinchman said. And under the federal Clean Water Act, the agency won’t be able to approve CMP’s mitigation plan if a less environmentally damaging alternative is available.

The Maine Power Reliability Program has the strong support of Gov. John Baldacci. It’s also heavily backed by businesses and contractors that want to help build the line and the energy projects that might someday connect to it.

CMP’s plan also has the blessings of the region’s grid operator, ISO New England.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

[email protected]