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Regulators focused on wildlife habitat and scenic views Monday during the first day of weeklong hearings on Central Maine Power Co.’s proposed $1 billion hydropower corridor through western Maine to the Canadian border.
The talks before the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Land Use Planning Commission, which governs the Unorganized Territory in Maine, aim to determine whether CMP’s 145-mile-long corridor will have unreasonable effects on the environment and whether the utility can take measures to address or mitigate them.
The DEP and LUPC will hold one more day of hearings May 9 to review rebuttal testimony. This week’s talks are being held at the University of Maine in Farmington. Tuesday’s hearings focused on the LUPC.
The hearings follow a recommendation Friday from the staff of the Maine Public Utilities Commission to grant a certificate of need for the New England Clean Energy Connect, or NECEC, project. The PUC still must rule on whether to grant the certificate.
Meantime, parallel hearings before the DEP and LUPC could potentially push the project toward crossing two other needed regulatory hurdles.
“There is a real concern about habitat,” Sean Mahoney, executive vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Maine Advocacy Center in Portland, said after the first day of talks.
He said “undergrounding” and “tapering” were a focus of Monday’s talks. Undergrounding would involve burying the transmission lines to minimize the visual and habitat effects. Tapering would involve planting trees in the corridor that decrease from 35 feet tall on the outside of the corridor to 25 to 15 feet as the trees get closer to the transmission lines.
“Tapering can have a beneficial impact on habitat fragmentation,” Mahoney said.
Habitat fragmentation occurs when a swath is cut through a previously dense forest, displacing some animals and causing others to not be able to cross from one segment of forest to another.
“It’s a cost issue,” Mahoney said of the choice between undergrounding and tapering. He said it could cost CMP an average of $2.2 million per mile each year over the 40 years of the project’s useful life to place wires underground for the final 53 miles of the corridor to the Canadian border, which runs through pristine forest and other landscapes. Tapering would cost an average of $10,000 per mile each year for 40 years, he said.
“Even if they tapered half of the corridor, that would be $270,000 per year over 40 years, or about $10 million,” he said. “That’s not much for a project that could make CMP $ 1 billion over 40 years.”
A CMP spokesperson was not immediately available for comment. The company filed 519 pages of pre-testimony with the DEP and LUPC on Feb. 28, detailing the project and the company’s mitigation proposals and some of their costs.
“We are pushing CMP to do more to prevent habitat fragmentation,” said Robert Wood, energy policy and projects adviser to the Nature Conservancy’s Maine Field Office in Brunswick. “We had a robust discussion Monday about habitat fragmentation and elevated it as a core concern. There is good evidence around science about habitat fragmentation and why it needs to be addressed.”
Wood said certain species, such as the pine marten, also known as the American marten, avoid open spaces and need to live under a tall forest canopy. The pine marten is a type of weasel.
“If you put an opening into the middle of the forest, it opens it up and it’s a barrier to movement,” he said.
While tapering is a lower cost alternative to trenching, people who participated in the meeting discussed burying parts of the wire along portions of the Spencer Logging Road, which runs roughly from Jackman west to the Canadian border.
Wood said CMP did not acquire the rights along Spencer Road, but if it did it might be possible to bury some of the transmission line along the road instead of going through forested areas.
But tapering vegetation seems like a more practical solution, he said.
Another habitat discussion focused on proposed deer travel corridors and one deer wintering area. The corridors would involve CMP letting softwood stands grow up to 35 feet high under the transmission wires but close to the pole structure. However, they would not grow in the middle where the wires are not supported by poles and might sag.
The stands would prevent snow from accumulating under the softwood trees so the deer could pass, and they would help the pine marten cross, he said.