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North Country
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.

Northern Pass Historical Impact: A Dispute Over Transparency

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CREDIT EDGARS STRODS / FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
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An important part of evaluating the impact of the Northern Pass project is a federal requirement for a historical review.

It’s called a Section 106 and it is supposed to determine whether the construction of Northern Pass – including the visual impact - will adversely affect any of the state’s historical sites.

It calls for public involvement – and the state’s congressional delegation - has said the Northern Pass review overall should be transparent. 

But a key document for that historical review hasn’t been widely available. That has caused some anger and worry about the openness of the process.

Chris Jensen has been looking at this and he joins us now.

Peter Biello: Chris what’s involved in this review?

Chris: Well, Peter, Section 106 is a federal requirement. And for Northern Pass it is a gigantic project. Typically a historical review looks at a bridge or church. This Section 106 has to consider important sites or even views along the entire 187-mile route.

Peter: So, who is doing this?

Chris: Northern Pass is paying for it. But the Department of Energy has selected the contractors who have been doing the work. Those contractors report to the DOE. But the state’s Division of Historical Resources is reviewing the contractors’ work.

Peter: So, how is it coming?

Chris: The study is being done in four geographic sections. The first portion covers The White Mountains and the state reviewed that recently. Over the next month or so the other portions should be reviewed.

Peter: So, what do state officials think about the first one?

Chris: The state had a public work session last week. I was there along with a few opponents of Northern Pass – and several Northern Pass lawyers – and people who were just interested in the process. The division staff had some concerns about the methodology and they worried that the review missed some things. Apparently such tweaks are normal. Those concerns will be passed along to the DOE.

Peter: So, why are some people angry?

Chris: Peter, it is the fact that the report wasn’t easily available to anyone who wanted to see it.

The Section 106 guidelines say the public should be involved in the process. But – unlike many other Northern Pass documents - this initial report was never put online for everyone.

Instead, it could only be downloaded by people or organizations approved by the DOE as “consulting party.” They were approved because they could show a special interest in the review. 

But the DOE warned them that they couldn’t share the review or talk with others who weren’t consulting parties.

Also, several people told me the DOE wouldn’t tell them the names of other consulting parties, although I heard a partial list is now available.   

Some opponents of Northern Pass suspect that is an effort to keep people from working together and thus having more impact.

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Section 106 is part of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

Peter: So, what does the DOE say about this?

Chris: Rusty Perrin, a spokesman for the DOE, said it was the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources that asked that the initial report not be widely available until it completed its review.

But over several days I couldn’t get him to point out where in the federal regulations DOE is allowed to do that just because state officials requested it.

I also talked to Patrick Parenteau. He's a professor at The Vermont Law School and he specializes in environmental law. He said he’s not aware of anything that would give DOE the legal authority to keep people from seeing the document.

Then, I talked to Richard Boisvert. He’s the number two person at the Division of Historical Resources. He said he didn’t recall how the decision was made. But he said “in general” it was a good policy because without the division’s comments and perspective some people “might come to the wrong conclusion.”

He also noted the need to keep archaeological sites secret so they are not looted.

But advocates of more transparency say that information could be redacted.

And finally, Boisvert said, this is the same policy used for all its projects. The document is available at their office in Concord and may be viewed by appointment.

That strikes some people as odd. The general public can make an appointment and drive to Concord to see the report. But they can’t simply get it online.

Another confusing element is that some towns may be consulting parties. So, they would have a copy. And, one can argue that under the right-to-know act anyone in town has a right to see the report.

Peter: Have you talked to any outside experts about this?

Chris: Yes. I asked Patrick Parenteau, the professor at The Vermont Law School, about the pros and cons of this limited-distribution process.

He said one reason to limit the distribution is that it is so early in the process that those involved should be left alone to discuss their findings and concerns and work on the report.

On the other side, Parenteau said, one can argue the public should have access now so they can comment early enough in the process to have an impact before it is “a fait accompli.”

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A portion of the Section 106 regulations.

Peter: With all this secrecy do we have any idea of what’s in the report?

Chris: Well, the DOE spokesman declined to give me a copy. But people who have seen it say they were shocked by how many historical sites would be affected by the transmission towers.

Peter: So, what’s going to happen? 

Chris: The Division of Historical Resources says after it files it comments – which should happen this week – the report should be available on line to everyone.

The DOE spokesman said after receiving that information the agency would “work to make the documents available through the libraries and online.”

So, we have to wait and see if that happens and whether the policy is changed for the other three reports.

Peter: Thanks, Chris.

Chris: You are most welcome.

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