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State environmental regulators weigh legality of power corridor license after Question 1 vote

Brian Bechard
Maine Public

State environmental regulators held a a day-long hearing on Monday to consider revoking or suspending Central Maine Power's license to build its controversial power corridor through western Maine. The testimony came in the wake of overwhelming voter approval of a ballot measure that aims to kill the project.

The hearing marks the first battleground over whether the vote 20 days ago will in fact cause the demise of the project, known as the New England clean Energy Connect. CMP officials and allies argued that if the Department of Environmental Protection revokes the billion-dollar powerline's license, Maine will lose the trust of the big-pocketed investors needed to fuel the state's economy.

"NECEC has invested more than $450 million dollars, including more than 139 miles of right-of-way, in a good faith effort complete the project under the contract and pursuant to its permits," says Thorn Dickinson is CMP's top manager for the project.

"To apply the initiative retroactively to the project would deprive NECEC of its vested rights. It also would make any development in the state vulnerable to after-the-fact changes to the law, chilling future economic development in Maine," he says.

But project opponents say rather than demonstrate good-faith, evidence shows that the company sped up its construction activities after the vote, in a hurried effort to create a legal fait accompli.

"And why? So as to set  the stage for a spurious claim of vested rights," says Robert Weingarten, a spokesman for a group called Friends of the Boundary Mountains. He accused state regulators of recklessly delaying action on earlier appeals, and on a decision by a state judge, called Black vs. Cutko, that threw out a lease for state lands CMP needs for its preferred route.

"Through direct democracy on Nov. 2 the people of our state have spoken, and said "no" to CMP's devious machinations. The law of the land is that  transmission corridors such as the NEEC are prohibited in the upper Kennebec region," Weingarten says.

And Jeffrey Reardon, a scientist with Trout Unlimited, testified that CMP has already cleared land in some highly sensitive wildlife habitat, down to the ground in places, and that a speedy decision to suspend or revoke the license could still prevent further damage.

"The more clearing and construction is completed  and the more decommissioning activities are required the bigger this problem grows. To avoid further impacts and to respect the decisions in Black v. Cutko and the will of the voters, DEP should immediately suspend the permit so no further damage continues," Reardon says.

But the project's defenders noted that the new law voters passed this month doesn't formally take effect until Dec. 19. And a lobbyist for industrial energy users, Tony Buxton, noted that CMP on Friday had already promised Gov. Janet Mills to halt construction pending a court case challenging the referendum's constitutionality.

"There is no need for the department to act at this point, and time will tell if there ever is. There is no harm occurring; we strongly urge that the lease not be suspended or revoked," says Buxton.

There seemed to be some confusion, though, about just what CMP promised to the governor about holding off on construction.

In an apparent effort to clear that up, a lawyer representing CMP, Lisa Gilbreth, encouraged project CEO Thorn Dickinson to clarify the company's position: that if the judge grants CMP's request for a temporary injunction against the referendum, the company would not wait for the entire case to be adjudicated before starting construction back up.

"So the company is committed to voluntarily cease construction for the limited period of time until the business court rules on the preliminary injunction, is that correct?" Gillbreth says.

"That's correct," Dickinson says.

Spokespeople for Mills did not respond to questions Monday about whether that "limited" suspension of construction satisfied her concerns.

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.