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Environment
What Is Northern Pass? Northern Pass is a proposal to run 192 miles of new power lines from Canada, through northern New Hampshire, south to Concord, and then eastward to Deerfield. The project is a collaboration between Eversource (previously known as Public Service of New Hampshire) and Hydro-Quebec, which is owned by the provincial government of Quebec. The utilities say the $1.6 billion Northern Pass project would transport 1,090 megawatts of electricity from Quebec – which derives more than 90 percent of its power from hydroelectric dams – to the New England power grid.The ControversyNorthern Pass has proved an incredibly controversial issue in New Hampshire, especially in the North CountryThe project has generated considerable controversy from the beginning. Despite its statewide impacts, many of the projects most dedicated opponents come from the sparsely-populated and heavily forested North Country.Eversource says the new lines would bring jobs and tax revenue to this struggling part of the state. But opponents of the project say it would mean only temporary jobs for residents when it's under construction. They also say it will deface New Hampshire's forestland, hurting tourism and lowering property values. Depending on the location, developers say the project's towers will range from 85 to 135 feet tall.Polls have consistently found the public remains sharply divided on this issue.Some critics have pushed for the entire project to be buried. Politicians ranging from Sen. Maggie Hassan to former Sen. Kelly Ayotte to 2012 GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich have floated this move as having the potential to soften opposition. Eversource maintains this would be too expensive, and would effectively make the project impossible to pursue. The Route: Real Estate Chess Plays Out In The North Country Northern Pass and its opponents have been fighting over control of land along potential routesNorthern Pass has considered a number of routes for the project, but has publicly announced three. The first, unveiled in 2011, faced major backlash from North Country residents and environmental groups. Over the next couple of years, the project and its primary opponent the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests played a prolonged chess match over parcels of North Country land. Northern Pass ultimately spent more than $40 million purchasing acres of undeveloped land in the North Country. Meanwhile, the Forest Society undertook an aggressive fundraising campaign and sought a slew of conservation easements to block potential routes.This maneuvering narrowed the options for Northern Pass. One lingering possibility was exercising eminent domain. Northern Pass publicly stated it was not interested in pursuing eminent domain. But in 2012, in response to strong statewide opposition, the Legislature closed the option altogether, outlawing the practice except in cases where a new transmission line was needed to maintain the reliability of the electric system.By the spring of 2013, Northern Pass opponents believed the project was essentially "cornered" into trying to route the power line through a large conservation easement, called the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters. The governor at that time, Democrat Maggie Hassan, said she opposed such a move on the part of Northern Pass.Second Time Around: Northern Pass Announces Alternative RouteIn June of 2013, Northern Pass unveiled its second proposed route. Abandoning its previous strategy (and $40 million in land purchases) altogether, the project proposed building along existing state and local North Country roadways in Clarksville and Stewartstown. In a nod to project opponents, Northern Pass also said it will bury 7.5 miles of line in Stewartstown, Clarksville, and under the Connecticut River. That raised the price tag on the project from $1.2 billion as initially proposed to about $1.4 billion. While opponents said this move was progress, many – including the Forest Society – maintained that Northern Pass should be able to bury all 180 miles of power lines.Final Route: Burial through the White Mountains0000017a-15d9-d736-a57f-17ff8a620000 After years of continued opposition, Northern Pass made its final concession to critics. It downsized the powerline from an initial proposal of 1,200 megawatts to 1,090 to take advantage of a new technology, known as HVDC lite. This move made it more economical to bury portions of the line, and Eversource said it was now willing to bury 52 additional miles of the project. The new route would be alongside state roadways as the project passed through the White Mountain National Forest.While the governor called the change “an important improvement,” she also said “further improvements” to the project should be made. The partial burial did not placate the project’s fiercest opponents, but some speculated that it would help the project clear one significant hurdle: whether it would get approval to use public lands from the top official at the White Mountain National Forest. The move pushed the estimated price tag up again, to $1.6 billion, now for a project that would deliver less power.With its new route in hand, project officials filed to build the project in October of 2015.Before the Site Evaluation CommitteeThe application to state officials was likely the longest and most complicated in the state’s history, and 161 individuals, interest groups, and municipalities asked to be allowed to participate in the process to evaluate the merits of the project.Given the size and complexity of the project, many of the interveners pushed for a longer review than the standard one year that state law dictates. In May of 2016, those groups got their wish, and the decision was pushed back 9 months. The final deadline was set for September of 2017. However, once the proceeding got under way, it was clear that even this delay would not allow time to hear from all of the witnesses called by the various interveners. Early in September of 2017 it was delayed again, with a final decision set for February 2018.DeniedOn February 1st, 2018, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee voted unanimously to deny the permit for Northern Pass, a decision that triggered an appeals process that was taken up by the New Hampshire Supreme Court in late 2018.In May of 2019, the court heard orgal arguments on the appeal.On July 19, 2019, the court issued its ruling. In a unanimous decision, the SEC's rejection of the project was upheld, likely marking the end of Northern Pass as it was proposed.

Indigenous Community Airs Long-Standing Grievances at Northern Pass Hearing

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Hannah McCarthy for NHPR
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Members of the Pessamit Innu build a fish weir for catching salmon

As the proposed Northern Pass power line – which would connect New England to Canadian hydroelectric power – works its way through the state siting process, officials took opened the floor on Wednesday at a hearing in Concord to receive public feedback.

This hearing drew some of the most steadfast critics of Canadian hydropower: an indigenous community from Northern Quebec.

Nearly one third of the dams that power Quebec's electric grid were built on the ancestral territory of the Pessamit Innu, a Canadian First Nation on the North Shore of the Saint Lawrence River.

The Pessamit filed to intervene in the Northern Pass proceeding in November of last year, but their request was denied by the state’s energy siting board, which determined they failed to show that another power line connecting to New England would impact their “rights, privileges and interests.”

The community has continued its efforts to tell their story to New England electricity consumers though, and has partnered with the Sierra Club to fund a tour through Massachusetts and New Hampshire to meet with legislators and other state officials.

At the hearing on Wednesday, a half dozen elders and members of the Pessamit band council – all speakers of French and their native language Innu – clustered around a podium in front of the members of the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee.

They stood while New Hampshire resident Paul Pouliot of the Cowasuck Band of the Abenaki people read a prepared statement they had provided. It said the goal of their trip was “to make New England aware that 29 percent of the electricity Hydro Quebec intends to sell was acquired in an immoral and illegal manner to the detriment of the Pessamit.”

The Pessamit’s complaints stem from the fact that they were not consulted in the 1950s and 1960s when Hydro Quebec first began building dams on their traditional territory. The community takes its name from the Betsiamites River, where they traditionally would gather in the spring and summer to fish for salmon.

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Credit Hannah McCarthy for NHPR
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The Betsiamites River dam

In the 1950s, prior to the construction of hydroelectric dams, the Pessamit caught as many as 1,000 salmon on the river, but in recent years have taken fewer than 200 fish per year.

For its part, Hydro Quebec says if the Pessamit want to discuss their grievances, the door is open. (Read their response below.)

The company notes that the two parties have signed multiple agreements which have resulted in Hydro paying out nearly $80 million to the community over the last 20 years.

Hydro Quebec also says that for ten years they collaborated with the Pessamit on a project working to restore salmon populations to the Betsiamites river, though that collaboration ended in 2010.

While experts in the field do agree hydroelectric projects can be harmful to salmon spawning habitat, the cause of the decline in Atlantic salmon is complicated and may have as much or more to do with over-fishing when the fish are out at sea, as loss of habitat in their spawning grounds.

The dispute between the Pessamit and Hydro Quebec is a long-standing one. The two signed an agreement in 1973 which offered the community $150,000 for “all damages past, present and future” caused by hydroelectric development on their territory.

In 1998, the band council filed suit, claiming this agreement was abusive and the federal government had failed in its fiduciary duty to protect the Pessamit. The suit asked for damages in excess of $10 billion dollars.

The case has been working its way through the courts ever since, and remains unresolved.

Read Hydro Quebec's statement on the allegations made by the Pessamit Innu:

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