State environmental regulators said Friday that the developer of a transmission line is complying with a permit to clear trees along the corridor despite allegations that contractors cut too wide a swath through western Maine’s forests.
Earlier in the week, opponents of the new transmission line accused Central Maine Power-backed project known as New England Clean Energy Connect of misleading the public about the width of a corridor that is being cleared for the $1 billion project. They also alleged that contractors had potentially violated the permit by “clear-cutting” a wider corridor.
During a briefing Friday morning with state lawmakers, representatives from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection said a monitor visited the one site depicted in a video sent to the agency. That visit, as well as ongoing monitoring of the vegetative removal, showed no violations, they said.
“DEP has got a third-party inspector who has been on site at least two days a week since they started clearing Segment 1 and provides reports,” Jim Beyer of the DEP’s Bureau of Land Resources told a legislative committee. “I have been there … and I’ve seen this. Currently, the construction is in compliance with the permit.”
New England Clean Energy Connect, or NECEC, already has started work on the 145-mile-long, high-voltage transmission line that will enable Massachusetts to import hydropower from Quebec. Opponents continue to challenge the project in the Legislature, in court and in public, with a central claim focused on the environmental impact of the power line passing through a forested corridor of western Maine.
Responding to a recent ad from a pro-corridor political action committee, the group No CMP Corridor claimed contractors had cleared a 98-foot-wide swath along the first section, known as Segment 1, near the Maine-Quebec border. That was nearly double the 54-foot-wide corridor authorized for the area immediately below and around the transmission lines.
The group then claimed that a professional forester who investigated the cutting on its behalf found that, in nine spots where he measured, the width ranged from 86 feet to 104 feet.
“From my well-seasoned forest harvesting perspective, my views on the CMP corridor yesterday clearly indicated to me that I was looking at a classic strip clear-cut, from (U.S. Route) 201 to Mining Road,” the forester, Roger Merchant, said in a statement released by No CMP Corridor. “There was no instance where I was looking at some form of a partial harvest on the cut corridor.”
NECEC, has responded by accusing No CMP Corridor and the allied political action committee, Mainers for Local Power, of spreading disinformation about the work to clear vegetation in the corridor.
For instance, the video that was produced for Mainers for Local Power – a PAC that has received more than $7 million from rival energy companies – and distributed by No CMP Corridor appears to show a 98-foot-wide cut. But NECEC pointed out that the measurements, in addition to being taken with what appears to be a homemade measuring tape, are along a road that runs diagonally through the cut.
Measuring on a diagonal, rather than straight across or perpendicular, could lead to a longer calculation, which is a point DEP officials also raised during the briefing with lawmakers.
“This stunt is the latest attempt by opponents to distract Mainers from the facts with its disinformation campaign,” Thorn Dickinson, president and CEO of NECEC, said in a statement. “The New England Clean Energy Connect has no incentive to not comply with the guidelines put in place by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Not only does the (department) monitor construction weekly, we continue to welcome the press to ensure full transparency.”
Representatives from the DEP were requested to brief the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee on the tree-cutting issue in response to the video and No CMP Corridor’s claims.
Beyer told lawmakers that project’s permit calls for “tapered” clearing along a 150-foot-wide corridor with the intent of maintaining a larger buffer of vegetation than around a typical power line.
The permit allows clearing a 54-foot-wide swath under the “wire zone” to be cut down to ground level during construction. It also allows clearing of vegetation above a certain height in three “taper zones” that each extend outward 16 feet on either side.
Crews are currently clearing that 54-foot-wide wire zone as well as 32 feet of the first taper zone on either side. Crews can clear all of the vegetation that is over 15 feet tall in that first taper zone, although the permit eventually requires trees of varying ages under the height restriction in each taper zone after construction.
Several lawmakers pressed Beyer and Bureau of Land Resources Director Nick Livesay on whether they were investigating other sites that allegedly were cut wider than permitted. But Livesay said the department had not received any details on other specific sites apart from the one shown in a video released by No CMP Corridor.
The third-party inspector had gone to the site to investigate before the video became public or came to the attention of the committee, Livesay said.
“Our focus, obviously, is on ensuring the permit that has been issued is complied with and, more importantly than that, that there’s no environmental harm,” he said.
The corridor, a joint project of CMP and Canadian utility Hydro-Quebec, has become a major political issue in Maine, spawning tens of millions of dollars in spending on ads, lobbying and public relations campaigns. Opponents also have succeeded in placing a referendum question on this November’s statewide ballot to force any high-impact electric transmission line proposal to gain approval from the Legislature.
Some of those political undertones were evidenced during Friday’s DEP briefing as lawmakers who oppose the corridor project grilled the department’s representatives on various issues.
“I think what we’ve learned is that this tapering business is a fraud,” said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford.
Bennett also pressed Livesay on how the public can communicate concerns about potential violations and whether the DEP will follow up on those concerns, and said he was “not terribly satisfied with a lot of your answers.”
Livesay responded to Bennett and other committee members that the DEP is being “pulled into” public relations campaigns in response to information being spread by political action committees on both sides. But he said the department will continue to follow up on any concerns raised.
“I am not going to commit that every single time someone alleges a violation that we are going to be able to run to that spot instantly,” Livesay said. “We are going to try to do our best to get to areas, and we certainly want to make sure there are no violations and there is no environmental harm. So we are going to continue to take these things seriously, just like we did this week.”
Lawmakers asked the DEP to update them on any additional resolution to the tree-cutting issue.
Crews with NECEC will have to halt tree-cutting in the corridor for two months starting June 1 in order to protect federally protected northern long-eared bats. Federal regulators required the stoppage because newborn bats typically cannot fly from June to July.
On Thursday, several parties involved in the regulatory review of the corridor claimed NECEC was rushing to cut as much vegetation as possible before June 1, potentially disregarding the permit requirements. The group of petitioners, which included residents and businesses in the area, asked DEP Commissioner Melanie Loyzim to suspend all work pending the investigation – and until voters have had a chance to weigh in on the November referendum.
“Further, even if the DEP finds the cutting is technically compliant with the order (allowing construction work), the physical cutting makes it clear exactly how damaging a 54-foot clear cut and more than 90-foot total cut area appears,” the group wrote in its petition to the DEP. “Considering a distance measurement on paper has a completely different impact from seeing the trees cut on the ground.
“CMP/NECEC’s cutting has made it completely clear that this corridor is a wide, jarring, and devastating scar on the landscape of Northern Maine.”