Transmission Line That Beat Out Northern Pass for Mass. Power Contract Has Its Critics

Jun 18, 2018

By Fred Bever, Maine Public

 

While the Trump administration is working to prop up coal-fired power plants, many states are on the hunt for renewable energy. In New England, though, a plan by Massachusetts to tap into Canada's vast, low-polluting hydroelectric dam system is drawing fire.

 

The stakes are high in Maine's West Forks region, where it's the beginning of the rafting season. The transmission line would cross here at Maine's Kennebec River Gorge, a steep-walled, verdant river canyon that's drawn whitewater enthusiasts for decades.

 

Kevin Ross, a guide with Dead River Expeditions, has been training recruits here for several weeks - and that includes intentional raft-flips and rescues.

 

A bit below the most challenging rapids, Ross points out a pile of rocks that wedge out into the river, nearly meeting another pile wedging out from the other side. "This is an old native American fishing weir, " he says.

 

Before the thrill-seeking tourists, the river was prized - and reshaped, Ross acknowledges, by earlier Maine residents. "So over the years people have changed this river and adapted to this river."

Kevin Ross, a rafting guide for Dead River Expeditions, points to a section of the Kennebec River Gorge where CMP proposes a major transmission line crossing. It would arc over an otherwise undeveloped seven mile stretch of the river. Ross opposes the plan, but CMP and other stakeholders have struck a mitigation deal that would include donations of recreational land and funding for economic development in the West Forks area. CREDIT FRED BEVER / MAINE PUBLIC)
Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public

 

But a giant extension cord between Canada and Massachusetts that would arc across the middle of an undeveloped gorge? That's a bridge too far, he says.

 

"It's hard to find places in this world that you don't see buildings, you don't see cell phone towers, you don't see... transmission lines," Ross says.

 

Meanwhile, from a bluff up above, local selectman Sandie Thompson cheers on another batch of rafters, some of the 15,000-plus visitors expected here this year. She reluctantly supports the project, partly because developer Central Maine Power is offering locals a $22 million compensation package focused on outdoor recreation.

"If some of the monies can come back to the community and help - I'd rather see transmission lines than wind power, those wind mills are terrible." Thompson says. "These rafting companies are in a tailspin."

The incentive package includes land and trails for hiking and mountain biking, a visitor center, funds for nature-based economic development, and new broadband lines.

"I think people... they like amenities," says Suzanne Hockmeyer, who co-founded the first ragtag rafting company here back in the 1970s. She helped negotiate the compensation package.

Hockmeyer says these days, a lot of baby boomers have already crossed whitewater dare-deviltry off their bucket lists, and the area needs wider offerings to compete with other Maine destinations.

"We knew that this area desperately needs some infrastructure, some money... to be one of the players," she says.

But opposition is evident among residents who make their living on and near the river. Greg Caruso is a hunting, fishing and rafting guide, and in summer he rounds things out in his canoe, ferrying hikers on the Appalachian Trail across the river.

The famed footpath would be partially rerouted to accommodate the power line, and he's not a fan of the deal local interests cut.

"Is it blood money?" he asks. "Could be considered that in my opinion.... I also think it's an easy sell out."

"Is it blood money?" he asks. "Could be considered that in my opinion.... I also think it's an easy sell out."

Hydro Quebec has promised that the plan would reduce the global production of greenhouse gas emissions. But Caruso suspects the company will simply take power it's already sending to other customers and shift it to Massachusetts, enabling politicians there to say they are doing the "green" thing.

That concern is shared by others, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the deep-pocketed Patagonia Company.

"Why do I have to worry about power in Boston?" Caruso continues. "Why do I have to have somebody detract from my wilderness experience, my living, to benefit themselves?"

And while project supporters, among them the governors of Massachusetts and Maine, have secured some local support, they still must negotiate many potential obstacles ahead, including permit hearings by state and federal regulators.