Central Maine Power Co. and a Somerset County nonprofit have reached an agreement on a mitigation plan that would result in the company investing $22 million in conservation projects and nature-based tourism as compensation for the negative impacts of a proposed transmission line that would cross the Kennebec River Gorge.

The memorandum of understanding announced Wednesday by CMP and Western Mountains & Rivers Corp. took two years to negotiate and was a response to CMP’s proposed New England Clean Energy Connect transmission project, the parties said.

The 145-mile line would bring hydroelectric power from Quebec through western Maine to customers in Massachusetts. Most of the line would run parallel to existing transmission lines, but about 50 miles of the new corridor would enter the West Forks region – the center of Maine’s whitewater rafting community. The Appalachian Trail also would be affected by the transmission line.

At least two major conservation organizations oppose the agreement. The Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Appalachian Mountain Club object to the transmission line because of concerns about the scenic impact it would have on the Kennebec River Gorge and the Appalachian Trail. The mountain club says the line would cross the world-famous trail three times in less than a mile.

MITIGATION: CENTER, JOBS, TRAILS

The mitigation investment would try to compensate for the transmission line’s potential negative impacts.

If the project is approved by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the Land Use Planning Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, CMP’s contribution would be used to transfer scenic land along the Dead River to Western Mountains & Rivers, pay for the development of a visitor center, and pay for the creation and maintenance of hiking trails.

Under the agreement, CMP also would agree to install fiber-optic cable to enhance broadband and Wi-Fi access for residents and businesses of Somerset and Franklin counties who live along routes 201 and 27.

“WM&RC took a hard look at all the options for having the transmission line cross the Kennebec,” Joe Christopher, owner of Three Rivers Whitewater, a rafting company based in West Forks, said in a prepared statement. “We are working with local stakeholders to determine the best possible way to cross the Kennebec River in a way that provides the most positive outcome possible.”

Christopher, who also serves as president of WM&RC, said the agreement announced Wednesday will retain and create new jobs in the region, preserve land for conservation and recreation, create and expand trail networks, and balance the negative impacts the transmission project could have.

TWO OPTIONS FOR RIVER GORGE

Thorn Dickinson, vice president of business development for CMP, said regulators will consider two options for installing the transmission line through the Kennebec River Gorge: running it overhead, or drilling a tunnel under the Kennebec River. The company’s conservation mitigation fund would drop to $5 million if regulators force CMP to drill a transmission line under the river, he said, noting that the cost of drilling is estimated to be about $37 million.

Dickinson said CMP favors running the transmission line over the river, an option he maintains will have minimal negative impact on scenic views for the thousands of adventurers who travel that section of the Kennebec.

“We believe the overhead crossing will have the least impact,” Dickinson said. “We’ve been able to design it in such a way that you won’t be able to see the overhead structures from the river. Out of a four-hour (rafting) trip, you might be able to see the conductors (wires) for five minutes.”

Larry Warren, the founder of Maine Huts and Trails and a member of Western Mountains & Rivers’ board of directors, supports the agreement.

“CMP proactively sought mitigation ideas that would help western Maine achieve its potential as a hub for outdoor recreation,” Warren said.

GOOD DEAL OR ‘PUBLICITY STUNT?’

CMP’s 145-mile transmission line would enter the West Forks region – a key area for Maine’s whitewater rafting. Staff file photo by David Leaming

He said the agreement, which is legally binding, was not done hastily and took about two years to negotiate. Western Mountains & Rivers tried its best to negotiate deals that will minimize the transmission line’s negative impacts and boost tourism, he said.

Warren said CMP would build a regional visitor center – negotiations for the potential site are underway – and that 670 acres of land on the Dead River near Grand Falls will be conserved. He said most of the region’s major rafting companies support the agreement.

Western Mountains & Rivers consists of representatives from large rafting companies, Maine Turnpike Authority Director Peter Mills and Warren. Mills served in the Maine Legislature for 16 years and is a founding member of the Somerset Economic Development Corporation.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine isn’t swayed by the arguments made by CMP and Western Mountains & Rivers.

“This seems like a publicity stunt. There is absolutely no detail or substantive information about what was agreed on or what CMP is proposing to do,” Dylan Voorhees, climate and clean-energy director for the resources council, said in an email.

“There is nothing to assess here. Rather it seems part of a continuing effort by CMP to create a narrative of public benefit when none really exists. This transmission project has large environmental impacts and no climate or clean-energy benefits, and this vague agreement doesn’t change that,” Voorhees said.

“This is reminiscent of CMP going to towns to solicit letters of support for the project before they had any trustworthy information on the economic or environmental impacts,” he said.

IMPACT ON APPALACHIAN TRAIL

The Appalachian Mountain Club outlined its opposition to the transmission line project in a position statement issued May 17.

Among the group’s concerns was the significant scenic impact on the Kennebec River Gorge, a nationally significant whitewater boating area.

The line would cross the scenic Appalachian Trail three times, a situation the AMC is concerned about. AMC also said there is a lack of evidence that the transmission line project will “provide real greenhouse gas reduction benefits.”

“The costs and impacts to Maine are far too high to build a project that doesn’t do the intended job. Both Maine and Massachusetts regulators must be certain that this project will reduce global greenhouse gas emissions at levels claimed before locking the state and ratepayers into it,” the AMC said.

CMP has proposed moving the trail so the line would cross it only once.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]