Northern Pass Historical Impact: A Dispute Over Transparency

Jun 15, 2015

Credit CREDIT EDGARS STRODS / FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS

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.

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.”

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.