Central Maine Power (CMP) has won a key state approval for its controversial proposal to build a major transmission line through the state's western woods.
At a meeting in Brewer Wednesday, the Land Use Planning Commission voted, 5-to-2, in favor of issuing a Site Law Certificate for the proposal. The Commission regulates development in Maine's unorganized territories, and some of its members struggled to restrict their analysis to the project's effects on three relatively small parcels of land and water bodies.
"If I was to vote strictly on my emotions I might not be so in favor of this," says Commission member James May.
May says that while the project might comply with the specific regulations for unorganized territories, he is unhappy with the way CMP approached the review process. May says CMP at first maintained that it could not afford rights-of-way that would allow the project to be relocated away from a wilderness water-body called Beattie Pond, but then suddenly agreed to the deal when it became clear that was a sticking point for the Commission.
"And then they tried to put pressure on us to make a decision before we were ready," he says.
May eventually joined four other commissioners to vote in favor of the project. Two voted against it and one, Gwen Hilton, abstained due to an unspecified conflict. This approval sets the stage for consideration of the project's overall effects on Maine's environment by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
"Obviously we're very pleased,” says Thorn Dickinson, vice president at CMP. “It was very clear that the commissioners took their responsibility very seriously."
Dickinson says the company was not stonewalling the Commission over the Beattie Pond issue, but had not been able to come to terms with the owner of a nearby parcel until the last minute.
"Despite how it may look, in the end we came with a proposal that we believe is better because it has less environmental impact and was better for Maine."
Environmental and other organizations opposing the project were disappointed by the Commission decision, but not surprised, given that Commission staff had already recommended approval.
And Sue Ely, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, points out that the decision deals with only a small portion of the lands affected by the project — one parcel where the Appalachian Trail crosses the power corridor, and another where the powerline would cross the Kennebec River Gorge.
"It was a very narrow look at just these two small components of this very large and very damaging project," Ely says.
Ely notes that a more comprehensive review of the project's overall impact on Maine lands by the state Department of Environmental Protection is still pending.
In addition to the DEP permit, CMP has already received approval from state utility regulators, and is seeking a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. Opponents, meanwhile, continue to seek signatures needed to get a statewide vote on whether the project should be allowed at all.
Updated 5:06 p.m. ET. Jan 8, 2020