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CMP Strikes $22M Deal On Transmission Project That Could Cross Kennebec River Gorge

Fred Bever
Maine Public

Central Maine Power (CMP) and a group of stakeholders in the western region of Maine, where the company wants to build a major new transmission line, have strucka mitigation deal worth up to $22 million.

The money and land would compensate for the project’s potential effects on local resources, including the scenic Kennebec River Gorge. Local sentiment about the project and the new deal is mixed.

From a bluff soaring one hundred feet above the Kennebec River, Sandie Thompson cheered on a group of rafters below, just a few days ago. She's a member of the local selectboard and a longtime resident whose property abuts the proposed transmission corridor. She was tentatively against the project, at first, but she says the idea of a mitigation package turned her in favor.

"If there's a mitigation involved where some of the monies would come back to the community and help, these rafting companies are in a tailspin, their businesses are going downhill. There's a lot of people against it and a lot of people for it, but unfortunately... we need power," she says.

Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public
Maine Public
Suzanne Hockmeyer is the co-founder of Northern Outdoors, a pioneering West Forks rafting outfit, at the company's brew pub and restaurant. She's signed on to a deal with CMP that would provide support for the region's nature-based economy in return for building a major transmission line across the Kennebec River Gorge.

The 145-mile line would bring hydro-electricity from Canada through Maine to customers in Massachusetts. Most of it would parallel existing lines, but some 50 miles of new corridor would cut from the Canadian border to the West Forks area – the center of Maine's whitewater rafting community and home to a crossing for the famed Appalachian Trail.

CMP's Thorn Dickinson says the package will include lands conserved for recreational trails along the nearby Dead River, funding for a visitor center, nature-based tourism, economic development and educational initiatives.

"And some other things we learned were important,” says Dickinson. “Things like public access to certain areas like Harris Station and Indian Pond, Carry Brook, places where sometimes there are risks associated with some of the people's ability to get in and enjoy the resources that are there."

Dickinson says the company has been negotiating with a group of stakeholders for more than two years. The group includes big rafting companies, Somerset County's former economic development director, who now spearheads the ConnectME broadband initiative, and Larry Warren, the founder of the Maine Huts and Trails system.

But opposition to the project is not hard to find in the Forks area.

Greg Caruso sits his canoe near the river's bank in Caratunk, a few miles downstream from the gorge, where the Appalachian Trail crosses. He is the ferry operator for the national trail's only manned water-crossing, and he's at the riverbank every morning at the season's height. He is not a fan of the deal the big rafters cut with CMP.

Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public
Maine Public
Greg Caruso, ferryman for the Appalachian Trail. In season, he takes through-hikers across the Kennebec River, a few miles downstream from where CMP wants to build a major transmission line. He opposes the plan – even with CMP’s offer to donate land and money in compensation.

"Is it blood money? Could be considered that in my opinion," says Caruso.

A Maine Guide, he notes that this state already produces all the energy it needs, and he asks why it should sacrifice its natural resources – and the local economies built round them – to serve Boston's energy needs.

"The whole reason people come up here is for the wilderness,” he says. “Every time you build a big project we take a little bit away from that wilderness experience. You're always hearing 'oh we got to save these people in the woods.' Well these people don't want to be saved. they live up here for a reason."

CMP's contract with Massachusetts electric utilities is still pending, and state regulators could decide on alternate routes, including a $37 million tunnel under the gorge. If regulators force one of those more expensive options, the value of CMP's mitigation package would decrease.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.