JAY — Even with Gov. Janet Mills’ support for the controversial project, opposition to Central Maine Power’s 145-mile transmission line through western Maine has gained steam, one town at a time.

The town of Jay is the latest to yield to a residents’ pressure to force a town vote on the project. If it passes, Jay would join a growing list of towns that have rescinded support.

Ever since the New England Clean Energy Connect project was announced in 2017, proposing to bring hydropower from Quebec through Maine to Massachusetts, state residents have been divided over its potential benefits and environmental impacts.

Public scrutiny of the $1 billion project has snowballed as it goes through the permitting process. Many towns that once formally supported it have either rescinded support or been pressured by residents to do so.

Opponents include many of the western Maine towns that the transmission line would cross, including Caratunk, West Forks, The Forks, Starks, Embden, Farmington and Wilton. The Franklin County Commission also rescinded support.

Jay, Anson, Durham, Pownal and Greenville could join those ranks depending on the outcome of votes this month.

Supporters argue the project will generate economic benefits for the state and support reduce carbon emissions. Critics doubt the benefits and worry about the impacts, including a 150-foot-wide clear-cut for 52 miles through the North Woods for new transmission lines to connect to CMP’s existing corridors.

While the Maine Public Utilities Commission granted the project a key permit in April, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the Land Use Planning Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers are conducting separate reviews.

Despite the recent pushback, CMP officials remain confident the project will eventually receive the permits needed for construction to begin.

‘PEOPLE SHOULD HAVE A VOICE’ 

The process playing out in Jay mirrors the statewide fight, with grass-roots opposition putting pressure on local town officials.

Earlier this month, the Jay Select Board denied a citizen petition requesting a town vote on the corridor. The vote was 2-2, after Selectwoman Judy Diaz was urged to abstain because of her outspoken support for the NECEC. (Diaz recently appeared in a pro-corridor advertisement).

After petitioners pressured the town to reconsider, the Select Board voted 3-1 in favor, and the vote will be held June 24.

“When the petition came before us, I thought whether I’m for (NECEC) or against it, the people should have a voice,” said Jay Selectman Gary McGrane, who voted both times to accept the petition.

Like officials in many towns, McGrane said the Select Board was introduced to the project by a letter from CMP asking for support. He said that at first, he was reeled in by the prospect of financial benefits and new jobs for the region. The Select Board initially issued a letter of support.

“Then, a number of citizens started getting concerned about the environmental impact,” he said, adding that he has since become concerned that the project will not do enough to reduce the state’s carbon footprint.

Jay Town Manager Shiloh LaFreniere said this week that the Select Board’s initial decision in 2017 to support the project was “based on their desire to stem the staggering tax increase that occurred when (the Verso paper mill) scaled back.”

Little opposition was heard from Jay residents two years ago, but that has changed. she said.

“There has definitely been a shift in regard to the public opinion on this project and we believe the municipalities are actively listening to the concerns of the citizens and weighing those concerns with the potential impacts for all their residents,” she said.

POLITICAL FIGHT

Sandi Howard, director of the group Say NO to NECEC, which she described as a “grass-roots nonprofit,” said she believes the recent wave of municipalities pulling support shows that CMP did not conduct a “true public outreach” for the proposal.

Howard said nearly all of the towns initially supported the plan because project officials began the process by “quietly courting” local select boards. She said that has slowly changed as Mainers have learned more about the potential impacts.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state’s leading environmental voice, has argued that the corridor would cause large-scale damage to Maine’s North Woods, would not reduce carbon pollution and could block local clean-energy projects that would provide “real jobs and benefits” for Mainers.

For residents packing recent town meetings, the rallying cry seems to center on a general distrust of CMP and its promises of tax benefits, combined with concern for Maine’s environment and scenic views that the rural towns rely on.

While the votes from towns along the corridor carry no official weight in the approval process, Howard said, they are “starting to be valued a little differently” now that there are multiple bills under consideration in Augusta related to the project.

“As towns vote against the project, we’re seeing that leverage state leaders, too, in the way that they interact with the proposals in Augusta,” she said.

The Maine House of Representatives voted in favor of a bill last week that would require a review of the corridor’s greenhouse gas emissions. Other proposals would restrict CMP’s ability to use eminent domain to take land and would delay any permits until after the Legislature adjourns next year.

Thorn Dickinson, vice president of business development for Central Maine Power/Avangrid, said the proposed bills in Augusta are intended to create uncertainty about the project.

Asked about the recent decisions from towns along the corridor to rescind support, and what it could mean for the end result, Dickinson pointed to the PUC decision, saying the commission concluded after 18 months of research and testimony “that the NECEC will benefit Maine consumers and the environment.”

“We will make the same case for the project during local permitting, in which each community will be asked to evaluate the project in the context of its own land-use standards,” he said. “We know that this project brings substantial environmental and economic benefits to Maine, and continue to encourage Mainers to think hard about the incredible clean energy as well as economic benefits NECEC will provide.”

The company has also criticized a larger campaign against the project, known as Stop the Corridor – a coalition that includes ReEnergy, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Maine Renewable Energy Association, Environment Maine and No CMP Corridor – insisting it is anything but grass-roots.

“The benefits the NECEC will deliver for consumers and the environment will come at the expense of the companies that own (electricity) generators all across New England, and they are working hard to stymie progress,” he said.

When Gov. Mills endorsed the corridor after project officials announced a $258 million benefits package negotiated by her administration, Stop the Corridor ran an ad calling it a “backroom deal.”

LEWISTON STRONGHOLD

Howard said decisions from the other state and federal regulatory agencies are expected this fall. In the meantime, the group is continuing its push in towns affected by the project.

While Durham, in Androscoggin County, is not within the area where the new corridor would be built between the Quebec border and The Forks, poles in its existing line corridor would be replaced with taller ones. “No CMP Corridor” signs, now ubiquitous in western Maine towns, can also be seen there.

The Durham Select Board on Tuesday voted unanimously to accept a citizen petition and schedule a town vote on the project. In addition, the board voted unanimously to send a letter to CMP saying it will rescind the town’s original letter of support for the project. (The town of Jay did not go that far.)

According to the project summary given by the town Select Board, the proposal would affect 4.5 miles of corridor in Durham across the northern part of town, replacing the 40- to 45-foot-tall poles with 90- to 100-foot ones.

For now, nearby Lewiston and the municipalities that surround it represent the remaining stronghold of support for the corridor. The city is a key piece of the proposal, where a new converter station to change the direct current from Quebec into alternating current would be built on Merrill Road.

Lewiston Mayor Kristen Cloutier recently appeared in an advertisement for Mainers for Clean Energy Jobs, the campaign launched last year to support the transmission line.

She said Lewiston’s estimated haul of $6 million or more in annual tax revenue from the project can “really create meaningful change in a community,” and went on say it could lead to paying for economic development projects, new fire substations, roads and riverfront redevelopment.

Tim Lajoie, a former Lewiston city councilor who is running for mayor in November, recently said he opposes the CMP project because it would “benefit wealthy special interests.”