November 20, 2018
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Quebec hydro line is not without environmental costs

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Now that the Northern Pass, a utility company plan to deliver Quebec hydropower to the Massachusetts power market through New Hampshire, is off the table, Central Maine Power is trying to fast-track a similar project through Maine. New Hampshirites understood that damaging their tourist-based economy by blighting their landscape with high-voltage power lines for temporary jobs was not a good deal, and it won’t be here, either.

While many have already written about how this is a bad economic deal for Maine, I want to focus on the project’s environmental impact, specifically countering the notion that this is green power and an appropriate move against climate change.

In bidding for Quebec hydropower, Massachusetts is trying to improve its energy portfolio by shuttering older coal-fired plants and replacing them with “clean” hydro. This looks good on paper, but it is simply outsourcing carbon emissions to Quebec, because Quebec hydropower is not emission free or green. Hydro projects that use large, dammed impoundments are not environmentally friendly. Indeed, the costs can exceed those of fossil fuel-sourced power.

The source of Quebec’s hydro is a series of dams that have flooded the Grand River watershed, a vast expanse of northern Quebec that covers the equivalent of New York state. Under the impounded water sit thousands of square miles of rotting northern spruce-fir forest, and this decay is a major source of carbon dioxide and methane, gases released from plant decomposition. Recall that methane is a very potent greenhouse gas with 30 times the potency of carbon dioxide.

In studied examples of dams comparable to the James Bay Project on the Grand River, the net result is the release of more greenhouse gas emissions than would have been emitted from fossil fuels, even at the levels of an outdated plant. This was the conclusion of a study of a large dam system in Brazil, where the greenhouse effect of emissions from the Curua-Una dam was more than 3½ times what would have been produced by generating the same amount of electricity from oil.

But that is not all. Plant decomposition on a massive scale produces toxic amounts of mercury. Now, mercury occurs naturally, and it is constantly released from decaying vegetation, but with decomposition on this scale, the mercury contamination is far beyond the cleaning capacity of natural systems. As a result, there has been widespread contamination of fish and animal stocks throughout the Grand River region. Not only are many fishing areas now flooded, but the fish themselves are not safe to eat and local Cree and Innu continue to have mercury levels in their bloodstream nearly 50 years after the construction.

Opposition by New Hampshire environmental groups was wide and deep. The agricultural community, residents, towns and dozens of major and minor environmental groups all took a stand against the Northern Pass as an eyesore and tourism killer. Despite the claims about jobs and other economic windfalls, there was no way to sugar coat 192 miles of 145-foot towers in a 400-foot swathe down the spine of the state.

The same is true here in Maine. The construction jobs will be temporary, but the effect on the landscape of 145 miles of high-voltage power lines will be permanent. While it is true that existing rights of way will be used where possible, much of the line will be widened and 50 miles added from scratch.

In the course of the 145 miles, there will be three crossings of the Appalachian Trail, one of the Kennebec River gorge, and hundreds of crossings of fishing streams, wetlands and lakes. We give that up so that Central Maine Power can have a $950 million contract all the while failing to demonstrate that the power is green.

In irony upon irony, the Cree and Innu have had their land despoiled to ship power to the south, and now western Maine will be used similarly. While the benefits of the power are passed to the south, the costs are very much here.

Steve Bien is a family physician and a board member of Western Maine Audubon, a chapter of Maine Audubon. He lives in Jay.

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