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At CMP trial, firm denies hurrying up pole construction to establish vested rights interest

Workers connect a section of the first pole of Central Maine Power's controversial hydropower transmission corridor, Feb. 9, 2021, near The Forks, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Workers connect a section of the first pole of Central Maine Power's controversial hydropower transmission corridor, Feb. 9, 2021, near The Forks, Maine.

Day four of the jury trial that could determine the fate of the $1 billion transmission project through western Maine continued with attorneys for Central Maine Power's parent company trying to establish that construction was beset by delays beyond its control. But attorneys for the defense homed in on a flurry of activity in the days right before the certification of the 2021 referendum that ultimately stalled the project.

There's supposed to be nearly 800 poles along the 145-mile route of the New England Clean Energy Connect, the project owned by CMP parent, Avangrid, and the plaintiff in a trial that could revive the project.

But by Nov. 2, 2021 — the day Maine voters halted the NECEC — only 70 transmission poles had been installed.

"Was it for lack of trying?" asked attorney Phil Coffin, who is representing Cianbro, the company charged with erecting the transmission poles.

"No, our guys were pretty bored for a lot of it. Our guys wanted to go and set poles faster, but you can't set what you don't have," says Ben Beaulieu, who worked as a project manager on the NECEC.

Beaulieu's testimony followed a familiar pattern. He described a pole installation effort upended by permitting delays, legal injunctions and constant issues with the number and quality of the poles from the manufacturer.

And the erection of transmission poles was important, not only in completing the project, but also to establish vested rights, a legal theory that could invalidate voters' decision to halt the NECEC in 2021.

It has also become the focus of the defense, which has asserted that project developers suddenly mobilized pole installation in Feb. 2021 to strengthen its vested rights claim just as the referendum was about to be certified — and despite ongoing construction problems.

Coffin attempted to head that off on Thursday with Beaulieu on the witness stand.

"Did that citizen-initiated referendum campaign have any impact on the work that Cianbro was doing to erect poles?" he asked.

"No," Beaulieu said.

But attorney Jeana McCormick, representing the Natural Resources Council of Maine, an intervenor for the defendants, presented jurors with internal emails suggesting that contractors were skeptical of the February pole installation plan.

And she read one of those emails from Paul Franceschi, Cianbro's general manager, while Beaulieu was on the stand.

"'This (is) all about getting started on the project to help with another potential referendum.' Do you see that?," McCormick asked.

"Yes," Beaulieu said.

She continued, "And Mr. Francheschi also wrote, 'None of it will be very productive. More of a show.' Do you see that?

"Yes," Beaulieu replied.

The show apparently included a media event for the installation of the first pole near The Forks in Somerset County.

But McCormick used Francheschi's email to suggest that contractors had additional misgivings about the push for pole installation in Feb. 2021.

"And then, the fourth line down, Mr. Francheschi writes, 'out of sequence, non-productive, mud season,'" McCormick continued.

In the end, Francheschi's predictions about the pole installation push were correct. Project developers had a stated goal of installing 30 poles in February. They ultimately installed fewer than 10.

How the jury will interpret those revelations on Thursday is unclear, but the exchange was typical of the trial that will conclude next week.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.