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In the Maine woods, preparations signal imminent start of CMP power line project

In court papers Monday, the developer says access road plowing started Monday and construction is expected to begin on or about Jan. 18.

JOHNSON MOUNTAIN TOWNSHIP — Obscured by a swirling snow squall, an amphibious off-road transporter with 5-foot-high tires maneuvered Friday along the Maine ITS 89 snowmobile trail at the base of Coburn Mountain. At a junction, two workers from Northern Clearing, a Wisconsin-based right-of-way contractor, stepped into the wind and 11-degree cold and secured a sign and pink flagging tape to a small tree.

The sign was one of hundreds being erected in remote stretches of northwestern Maine between the Canadian border and The Forks. They will guide crews – likely starting next week – to where they will begin clearing sections of a 53-mile-long corridor through the forest for Central Maine Power’s $1 billion hydroelectric power corridor project, called New England Clean Energy Connect.

After three years of dispute and debate, and despite ongoing court challenges and a pending voter referendum, work is finally set to begin to create a 54-foot-wide path for hydroelectricity from Quebec that ultimately will be... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

In court papers Monday, the developer says access road plowing started Monday and construction is expected to begin on or about Jan. 18.

JOHNSON MOUNTAIN TOWNSHIP — Obscured by a swirling snow squall, an amphibious off-road transporter with 5-foot-high tires maneuvered Friday along the Maine ITS 89 snowmobile trail at the base of Coburn Mountain. At a junction, two workers from Northern Clearing, a Wisconsin-based right-of-way contractor, stepped into the wind and 11-degree cold and secured a sign and pink flagging tape to a small tree.

The sign was one of hundreds being erected in remote stretches of northwestern Maine between the Canadian border and The Forks. They will guide crews – likely starting next week – to where they will begin clearing sections of a 53-mile-long corridor through the forest for Central Maine Power’s $1 billion hydroelectric power corridor project, called New England Clean Energy Connect.

After three years of dispute and debate, and despite ongoing court challenges and a pending voter referendum, work is finally set to begin to create a 54-foot-wide path for hydroelectricity from Quebec that ultimately will be earmarked for customers in Massachusetts.

In court papers filed late Monday, the president and chief executive of NECEC Transmission LLC, Thorn Dickinson, said that Northern Clearing began plowing access roads on Monday to prepare for construction. Work is expected to begin on or about Jan. 18, Dickinson said in a sworn statement.

That would mark a milestone for one of  Maine’s most controversial energy proposals – a high-voltage transmission line that will bring 1,200 megawatts of renewable energy to New England’s electric grid, but also pass through lands prized for their recreational and environmental values.

For residents and businesses along Route 201 from Jackman to Bingham, there has been an increasing awareness that construction was imminent.

Pete Dostie owns the Hawks Nest Lodge, an outdoor adventure business perched next to the highway and Kennebec River in West Forks. Dostie said he spoke last week with workers and a foreman for the cutting operation. The workers said they were told that snow plowing of access roads for corridor clearing would begin Tuesday, from Route 201 to Coburn Mountain.

Dostie conveyed that information Friday in a sworn statement filed in Somerset and Kennebec Superior Court. His affidavit is meant to supplement a motion by project opponents aimed at delaying a permit granted last May by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

A judge had yet to rule on the motion as of Monday afternoon.

A lawyer for the opponents wrote that Dostie’s statement shows “the imminence of construction and immediate and irreparable harm are now alarmingly real – next week Tuesday come the bulldozers, and the trees will be gone.”

Wooden timber mats, used to control erosion and keep vehicles from getting stuck, are stacked to form a giant wall at the Marshall Yard staging area near West Forks on Friday, waiting to be used for the power line corridor clearing. New England Clean Energy Connect will need tens of thousands of the mats for the project. Photo courtesy of Aaron Turkel

That date proved to be a week premature. But Monday’s court statement by Dickinson was the first acknowledgment by the company that work is about to begin. Dickinson had declined an interview request made over several days prior by the Portland Press Herald.

A spokesman for the company subsequently conveyed to the newspaper – inaccurately – that no exact date had been set, but work would start “in the coming weeks.”

SENSITIVE TOPIC FOR LOCALS

Because the project has become so polarizing, some business owners are reluctant to discuss what they have been seeing for preparations.

Jackman is the last community heading north on Route 201 before the Quebec border. Residents at a special town meeting in 2018 voted overwhelmingly to oppose the power line, even though it won’t run through their town.

On Monday, two of the town’s largest hospitality businesses declined to talk publicly about the impact of workers arriving.

Glenn Levesque, owner of Bishop’s Motel, said he had been misquoted previously by reporters. A clerk at Bishops Store, which offers everything from food to sporting goods, gas and a laundromat, said the issue is too political.

Jackman’s town manager, Victoria Forkus, said she hadn’t yet noticed a large number of power line workers coming into town. She acknowledged that the project had split the community, but said it also could help the local economy.

“If the project is determined to move forward,” she said, “we would more than welcome the benefits this community would see.”

The area where clearing is set to begin is a working forest that for generations has accommodated recreation, forming the economic foundation of the region. Every few minutes, the distant drone of a diesel engine signals that a tractor-trailer is about to race by on Route 201, loaded with logs, lumber or wood chips. On a typical winter weekend, hundreds of pickup trucks pulling snowmobile trailers join the parade.

One of Dostie’s immediate concerns is that construction over the next few months will limit access to ITS 89, a major snowmobile trail that connects the Rangeley area with northwestern Maine as well as Coburn Mountain. At 3,717 feet, the summit features the highest groomed sled trail in the state and is a popular destination.

Dostie’s concern is shared by Joe Kruse, president of the Coburn Summit Riders snowmobile club.

“I came up (on the trail) one day and the signs were up,” Kruse said. “I don’t know the timeline, but they’re planning to open the roads soon, start plowing them.”

Kruse met last week with Dickinson, seeking an arrangement by which the trails could remain open while clearing starts.

In his court statement Monday, which was related to the case in Superior Court, Dickinson disputed charges made in Dostie’s affidavit. He said the company would minimize disruption to the trail system and wouldn’t close any trails during construction, including access to Coburn Mountain.

Workers from Northern Clearing in Ashland, Wisconsin, used an amphibious all-terrain transporter Friday to gain access to remote areas and erect signs where crews will begin clearing a corridor for the New England Clean Energy Connect power line. This sign was posted on a snowmobile trail near Coburn Mountain, between West Forks and Parlin Pond. Photo courtesy of Aaron Turkel

READY ON THE GROUND

Over the past several weeks, Dostie, Kruse and others had noticed increased construction staging activity. The most striking example is what’s taking place off Route 201, at a large clearing and building complex used for forestry operations known as the Marshall Yard.

In the gated yard, miles of wooden erosion-control mats have been stacked high to form a giant wall. Tens of thousands are needed to form temporary roadways in the woods to support heavy equipment. The mats bisect a sprawling clearing that’s filling now with trucks, tracked excavators, wood-harvesting equipment, even a mobile gasoline station.

What’s happening on the ground is complemented by actions laid out in regulatory filings.

On Jan. 4, CMP officially closed on transferring ownership of the project to NECEC Transmission LLC. That was a critical legal hurdle, months in the making, which turns NECEC into a subsidiary of Avangrid Inc., CMP’s domestic parent company.

NECEC also has hit other key benchmarks critical to moving ahead, according to information filed in early January at the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

CMP has finished signing all major contracts for land clearing, as well as for materials and construction of the new line and upgrades of the existing network. CMP also signed a contract for the $250 million high-voltage converter station in Lewiston that will turn direct current into alternating current to feed into the regional electric grid. Construction is set to begin within weeks, the company said.

Deliveries of materials such as steel poles are expected to begin as soon as this week, followed by conductors and insulators in February.

As part of NECEC’s permit commitment to give preference to Maine workers, union contractors, such as Local 104 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, have begun advertising and hiring. Non-union companies are set to begin their hiring efforts, as well. On NECEC’s website, an online form is available for applying for jobs including linemen, equipment operators, drivers and apprentices for on-the-job training. The company says it’s seeking a total of 1,600 workers.


A section of the New England Clean Energy Connect power line will cross ITS 89, a major snowmobile trail in northwestern Maine near Coburn Mountain. This junction, in Johnson Mountain Township, shows nearby destinations for riders. A directional sign for the clearing operation has been affixed to the signpost.  Photo courtesy of Aaron Turkel

TIME EQUALS MONEY

NECEC has made it clear that time is of the essence.

A six-month delay in bringing the project online would cost CMP an additional $31 million, while a one-year delay would raise that figure to $37 million, the company revealed in federal court filings.

Powerline contractors had planned to begin clearing work as early as Dec. 4, but that schedule was pushed back. But in December court filings, NECEC said it needs to begin work by early January to meet contract obligations, be off the ground before the spring thaw, and protect vulnerable wildlife.

The NECEC project already has been set back from a planned in-service date of Dec. 13, 2022, to May 31, 2023. Further construction delays will require CMP to pay waiting contractors hundreds of thousands of dollars a week, money that can’t be passed along to Massachusetts utility customers or CMP’s partner, Hydro-Quebec.

The unease about when the project will actually begin and its impact is heightened now by another factor – lack of deep snow.

The hill country typically has 2 or 3 feet of snow on the ground by early January, so groomers can make the sled trails ready to ride. But with less than a foot now and no big snowstorms in sight, the thousands of riders who should be staying at lodges and motels, eating food and buying gas, aren’t there.

Assuming the weather pattern changes, business owners hope confusion over whether major trails are open won’t keep riders from coming to the area.

“If we had a normal winter, it would be a bigger problem,” Kruse said. “There would be snowmobiles everywhere.”

Kruse, who also owns Lake Parlin Lodge & Cabins, said it’s possible some workers could rent a room or cabin, but that hasn’t happened yet. Commenting on the mixed emotions among residents and business owners, Kruse said he has heard rumors about workers being turned away when looking for a place to stay.

“My personal feeling is, these guys are just making a living on the line,” he said. “They just need a bed. They’re just trying to feed their families, like everyone is.


Source: https://www.pressherald.com...

JAN 12 2021
http://www.windaction.org/posts/52079-in-the-maine-woods-preparations-signal-imminent-start-of-cmp-power-line-project
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