Energy Project Faces Skepticism from a Town with a History of Taking a Stand

Dec 19, 2016

Disputes between utility companies and local residents over new power lines are a familiar story. But on New Hampshire's Seacoast, a version of that story is playing out with a few twists. For one, the power lines would go underwater. And two, they would go through a town that prides itself on its history of opposing energy projects.

On one side of Jeff and Vivian Miller’s living room in Durham is a set of huge windows filled with a vista of Little Bay. The Millers' grassy backyard extends only about 100 or so feet before giving way to the shallow tidal estuary that connects the Piscataqua River and Great Bay.

But today, rather than simply admiring Little Bay from their living room, the Millers are fretting about what might happen to it if a transmission line project proposed by Eversource, the state’s largest utility, is approved.

Transmission lines carry electricity over long distances – you can think of them as the highways of the power grid.

If built, this "electricity highway", known as the Seacoast Reliability Project, would stretch about 13 miles from Madbury to Portsmouth. Most of the line would travel above ground on poles, but portions of it, including the crossing of Little Bay, would be buried.

The proposed route of the Seacoast Reliability Project.

The project is designed to bolster the electrical grid on the Seacoast, lessening the chance of black-outs during peak electricity usage.

The industry group that controls the flow of electricity over the grid in New England identified the need for a project like this in a recent report. But like many other large utility projects, the Seacoast Reliability Project has drawn opposition from some residents along its path concerned about property values and obstruction of views.

For many Durham residents like the Millers, the crossing of Little Bay is another matter altogether.

“It’s a much bigger issue than ‘we don’t want the poles.’ We’re trying to protect the bay and we’re trying to protect our community," Vivian Miller said.

Eversource has proposed to bury the cable beneath Little Bay by using a technique called jet-plowing. That’s where a machine moves along the bottom of the bay using water jets to blast a narrow trench for the cable to be lay in.

Some residents, like the Millers, worry this process will damage Little Bay by creating a lingering cloud of sediment that could affect oysters, eel grass, and other wildlife in the bay. They also worry there could be chemicals from the area’s industrial history buried in that sediment.

But according to Sarah Allen, an environmental consultant hired by Eversource, there’s no reason for concern.

“All the sampling we’ve done has indicated that the sediment plume is very transient and temporary and that the quality of the sediments is such that they do not present a risk to organisms," Allen said.

In other words, she says most of the dust kicked up by the jet plow will settle in just a few hours. And she says samples of the sediment in Little Bay turned up no harmful chemicals.

But that hasn’t done much to reassure Durham residents concerned about the project.

Town Administrator Todd Selig says that’s due in part to the history of environmental damage to the Great Bay estuary and the town of Durham.

“We’ve spent so much time and so much money locally to protect the estuary, the thought that a large regional power project could somehow negatively impact it is really disconcerting," Selig said.

Those recent local efforts include costly upgrades to wastewater treatment plants, and changes to how the town deals with storm-water runoff.

Then, there’s history. Oil tycoon Aristotle Onassis tried to build a refinery on Great Bay in the 1970s. Local opposition from Durham residents halted that project and raised awareness about the environmental health of Great Bay.

“This proposal is not unlike the Onassis proposal," Selig said. "It has to do with energy; it’s a large company that wants to do business in Durham; it’s not something Durham has sought; and we’re working hard to look after the interests of our residents. And so I think the spirit of 'save our shore' from the 70s lives very actively today.”

The project is currently winding its way through the state’s Site Evaluation Committee process – a sort of trial where the proposal is evaluated.

Eversource will look to convince Durham residents that the Seacoast Reliability Project is no Onassis refinery.

Durham, meanwhile won’t be taking it on faith. The town council recently voted to hire its own environmental consultant to review the science of how jet-plowing would affect Little Bay.

Formal hearings on the project will likely begin in the spring.