Northern Pass' New Route Hangs On Eight Miles of Country Roads

Jun 27, 2013

After a series of delays PSNH has announced a new route for its Northern Pass project. 

The route follows a more easterly path than the original 2010 route and it includes nearly eight miles of underground wires.  But this new route isn’t a done deal. State officials still have to approve a key element – putting those underground lines on public property.

For almost two years Northern Pass and its opponents have played geographic chess in Northern Coos County.

Northern Pass spent millions of dollars on land.

Opponents, including The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, used tactics such as conservation easements to block the utility.

But Thursday PSNH president Gary Long unveiled a new proposed route.

“We now have a complete route. We now can get from the Canadianborder to the grid, New England grid, that we connect to in Deerfield, New Hampshire.”

But that route is hardly a done deal, notes Christophe Courchesne, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation, which has concerns about the project.

 “Right now there is no route that Northern Pass controls and Northern Pass needs public land to make its project a reality.”

The key to the new route is burying about eight miles of the high-power lines along public roads in the northernmost part of the state.

They include Route 3 and several smaller, county roads, mostly in Stewartstown.

PSNH’s Long says putting the wires underground alongside the roads avoids potential visual impacts and addresses past public concerns.  And he says PSNH will work closely with the state and towns and neighbors of the lines.

 “We are going to have more dialogue. That is the New Hampshire way. That is the way we like to work.”

The underground lines are crucial because they allow Northern Pass to get around the conservation-easement blockade and avoid trying to cross the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters conservation area.

But neither Coos County nor the towns will make the decision on whether to allow the lines to be buried.

Instead approval to bury the lines along a right-of-way needs the approval of the state’s Site Evaluation Committee.

It’s  a sixteen member group made up of officials from various state agencies.

On Wednesday Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a bill to study the Site Evaluation Committee, including whether more citizen input is needed.

That’s something Sen. Jeff Woodburn, who represents the North Country, says should be part of the process.

“It violates in my mind the idea if not of local control, certainly local involvement.”

Long says the project will file a permit application with the Site Evaluation Committee in 2014.  During that time he said they will hold a series of open house events in towns along or near the line.

But that didn’t do much to calm Northern Pass opponents as news of the new route spread.

Bob Baker is a lawyer from Columbia and an opponent of Northern Pass.

Right now they are desperate. They don’t have a route. They are now pleading for the SEC to give them permission to use state and town roads.”

There is also the question of why Northern Pass can’t bury more than eight miles of the lines, said the Conservation Law Foundation’s Courchesne.

It is really insulting to the rest of the communities along the route that they decided to take this approach of a minimal amount of burial.”

PSNH says burying would be too expensive, although in the past it has never provided a detailed analysis of those costs. 

The new route now has a price tag $200 million higher than the original route. Northern Pass spokesman Michael Skelton said most of that cost is putting the line underground but it also includes line redesigns, projected material and labor costs.

The news of the proposed route surprised and angered some opponents who thought the project had been blocked.

On Thursday PSNH’s Long addressed opponents saying, quote—“as we move forward, I’m asking those who have previously opposed this project to be open to working with us to address concerns.”

He also reiterated what he sees as the economic and environmental advantages of the project—saying 1200 jobs will be created during the construction period, and an additional 200 jobs each subsequent year.

Northern Pass’ announcement comes as its parent – Northeast Utilities – has been facing increasing questions from industry analysts about the project’s progress.

The project still faces other hurdles. For example it needs permission to use an existing right-of-way through The White Mountain National Forest.

And the overall project must still be approved  by the U.S. Department of Energy which will hold a series of public hearings.

For NHPR News this is Chris Jensen