Central Maine Power Co.’s plan to build a transmission line through western Maine’s mountains cleared a significant hurdle Friday when the Maine Department of Environmental Protection issued a draft permit for the $1 billion project.

The initial approval puts significant conditions on the project to limit its impacts, in one instance decreasing the width of the corridor to nearly one-third of what the company had requested.

In announcing the order, the DEP said in a statement that its approval “requires an unprecedented level of environmental and natural resource protection in the permitting of Central Maine Power’s New England Clean Energy Connect Project.”

But opponents of the project were quick to dismiss the permit order as doing little to protect Maine’s environment and resources, and some foes called out the DEP for announcing its decision while the state is focused on battling the coronavirus pandemic.

“Based on our initial review, the CMP corridor continues to carve an unacceptable path through a globally significant forested landscape and provides no verifiable reduction in greenhouse gas pollution,” according to a joint statement issued by the Appalachian Mountain Club, Trout Unlimited and the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “While we appreciate the department’s attempt to reduce impacts, this remains the wrong project in the wrong place. ”

CMP has said the project will provide Maine jobs and cheaper power and has offered Maine $258 million over 40 years to reduce power bills, improve broadband internet, and expand efficient home heating and electric vehicle chargers.

Most of the proposed 145-mile transmission line would only require expanding existing power line corridors, but roughly one-third would involve new construction in woodland between the Canadian border and the Kennebec River.

The draft order, which will be subject to public comment until March 27, is the second key victory for power line advocates in recent months.

In January, CMP won approval from the state’s Land Use Planning Commission, which serves as the zoning and planning board for the state’s unorganized territories. Many of the controversial sections of the proposed line, which is meant to help connect hydropower from Quebec into the New England energy grid, are in unorganized parts of the state.

Friday’s announcement by the DEP came just over a week after state officials announced opponents to the power line expansion had gathered enough voter signatures to place a ballot question on the expansion before voters in November.

But on Friday, Clean Energy Matters, a political action committee supporting the corridor expansion, filed a petition in Kennebec County Superior Court alleging that thousands of signatures on the petition for the ballot question were collected improperly.

Sandi Howard, the director of Say No to NECEC, one of the backers of the ballot question, also blasted the DEP in a statement, saying the agency was using the coronavirus pandemic as cover for its decision.

“The state agencies that are supposed to keep us safe continue to fail us, which is why the people of Maine deserve a vote to stop this project,” Howard said. “It’s deeply frustrating that DEP made its announcement as the country turns its attention to dealing with a public health crisis. This is not transparent, fair behavior.”

Catharine Harnett, a spokeswoman for CMP’s parent company, Avangrid, said they were pleased with the permit decision.

Thorn Dickinson, the president and CEO of New England Clean Energy Connect Transmission, a limited liability company set up to back the corridor expansion, also praised the DEP’s action.

“The  (DEP) commissioner and staff have reviewed thousands of pages of documents and testimony and determined that, with the draft special conditions, the project fully complies with all environmental standards established by the DEP,” Dickinson said. “We will review the special conditions included in the draft permit and look forward to the final decision by the DEP to approve the NECEC.”

Among other things the draft order requires:

• The corridor width to be kept to 54 feet at its widest point. The original proposal asked for a 150-foot corridor width.

• Preservation of natural forest canopy or trees at least 35-feet tall along a 14-mile segment of the corridor to protect vulnerable habitat area for wildlife and rare plants.

• The conservation of more than 700 acres of deer wintering area and the preservation of soft-wood deer travel corridors across the transmission corridor in an important deer wintering area along the Kennebec River.

• A prohibition on herbicide use for the first 53.5-mile segment of the corridor from the Canadian border to the Kennebec River.

The order also requires CMP to permanently conserve 40,000 acres of forest in western Maine and provide $1.8 million for a culvert replacement program meant to improve fish habitat, prevent erosion and improve water quality.

The company also needs approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which said it expects to issue a decision in the next few months, as well as a Presidential Permit that allows the line to cross the U.S. border with Canada.

Before making its final decision, the DEP said it will review and consider all written comments.

Any decision by the DEP could be challenged by an appeal to the Board of Environmental Protection or in the courts.

 

 

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