THE TROUBLED NORTHERN PASS power line project was dealt another blow as the federal Environmental Protection Agency called for an additional 40-mile stretch of the transmission line to be buried underground rather than disrupting wetlands and wildlife through northern New Hampshire.
In a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of the permitting process for the transmission line slated to carry hydroelectricity from Quebec to New England, an EPA official said putting the cables underground alongside existing roads would increase the cost of that section by 10 percent, while dramatically reducing the acreage of wetlands that would be lost by creating a new right of way above ground for the lines.
Northern Pass, which is being built in partnership with Eversource and Hydro-Quebec, is a proposed 192-mile line stretching from the Canadian border in Pittsburgh, New Hampshire, to Deerfield, New Hampshire, 30 miles from the Massachusetts border. Under Eversource’s current plans, only 60 miles of the line would be underground, with the remainder going through thousands of acres of woodlands in New Hampshire, including environmentally sensitive Coos County in the state’s northernmost region. The EPA proposal, called a Hybrid Alternative, would bring the total underground to 100 miles.
Jacqueline LeClair, chief of the Wetlands Protection Unit of the EPA’s New England regional office, said not only would the wetlands be disrupted by the power line itself running through, construction mats on the forest beds and cutting down trees would have a deleterious impact on hundreds of additional acres.
“The additional 40 miles of burial provided in the northern segment of the route adjacent to existing roadways would reduce direct and secondary impacts to streams and wetlands,” she wrote. “The increased costs of the Hybrid Alternative…represent a small portion of the overall cost.”
A spokesman for Eversource said the EPA’s stance is nothing new, having been laid out last year during the public comment period. Martin Murray said in an emailed statement that was later posted on the Northern Pass website that those concerns were already addressed. He said the EPA letter should have little impact on the Army Corps of Engineers decision.
“Eversource has confirmed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) that the letter will not affect the decision regarding a required ACOE wetlands permit,” the statement reads. “It is also important to note that Northern Pass does not require a permit from the U.S. EPA. The agency’s letter this week was directed to the ACOE, which is expected to issue a required wetlands permit to Northern Pass before the end of the year. EPA’s comments were a repeat of what the agency said last year.”
Northern Pass has divided state and environmental officials since it was first proposed. Many state officials, including in Massachusetts, say the power from Hydro-Quebec could have a marked impact on reducing greenhouse gases and help those states meet emission reduction goals. But environmental advocates say the planned deforestation as well as the upheaval of vernal pools and wildlife habitats would negate any ecological benefit derived from the transmission line.
Last month, the Department of Energy issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement that supported Eversource’s proposed route, which also included mitigation payments and conservation plans, as the “preferred alternative.” But the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee, which is an essential agency in deciding the fate of the line, delayed its decision to issue a permit from this month until March of next year. Despite the Eversource statement, the EPA letter, which is an expansion on its comments from last year, will likely weigh heavily both with the site evaluation committee as well as the Army Corps of Engineers.
EPA officials in the Boston office could not be reached for comment and officials with Coos County did not return calls for comment. A representative from the Army Corps of Engineers as well as the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee also did not return a call.