A federal judge has denied a motion for a preliminary injunction that would have prevented Central Maine Power Co. from beginning construction on a 145-mile transmission line project to bring hydropower from Quebec to the New England power grid.
U.S. District Judge Lance E. Walker issued his 49-page ruling Wednesday afternoon, rejecting the civil action filed by plaintiffs Sierra Club Maine, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and the Appalachian Mountain Club.
The groups filed the motion for an injunction last month in an effort to delay any tree clearing until the court can fully consider a lawsuit filed by the three groups challenging the Corps for what they allege was a flawed and inadequate environmental review of a project they contend will cause irreparable harm.
The New England Clean Energy Connect project developers issued a statement Wednesday evening saying that construction of the transmission line won’t begin until January at the earliest. To cross the Canadian border, the project still needs to obtain a presidential permit from the federal Department of Energy.
“We appreciate the court’s thorough analysis and decision regarding the request for an injunction of the permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers,” the statement said. “The New England Clean Energy Connect continues to meet every permitting milestone throughout the regulatory process. We will need to allow time for some planning matters such as the transfer of the project from CMP to NECEC but look forward to breaking ground in the coming weeks.”
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Sue Ely, said the judge’s ruling does not resolve the central legal dispute.
“Our lawsuit challenging the flawed federal review for the CMP corridor will continue to move forward regardless of today’s decision,” Ely said in a statement issued Wednesday evening. “Given the enormous impact this project would have on the woods, waters and recreational economy of western Maine, Mainers deserve an answer to why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted their assessment behind closed doors and failed to properly assess the widespread damage that would be done.
“As it has done throughout this process, CMP is trying to predetermine an outcome by rushing to construction before appropriate federal review has been completed and all the lawsuits challenging this project are fully heard and decided. Instead of acting to protect profits for its shareholders, CMP must respect the concerns Maine people have raised about the damage the corridor would cause,” Ely said.
The plaintiffs in the civil suit have challenged the decision of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue a Clean Waters Act permit on Nov. 6.
The Army Corps’ review found that the project did not amount “to a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” That decision meant the Corps did not have to file an Environment Impact Statement, a more detailed analysis of the project’s impact, according to court documents.
The NECEC project would transmit 1,200 megawatts of hydroelectricity from Canadian utility Hydro-Quebec to the New England grid, and would be funded by Massachusetts ratepayers. The 145-mile-long transmission corridor would cut through about 53 miles of mostly-commercial forest owned or controlled by CMP in western Maine before following existing transmission corridors.
The Sierra Club, Appalachian Mountain Club and National Resource Council of Maine maintain that the 53 miles of new power line would “forever fragment the largest contiguous temperate forest in North America and perhaps the world. The destruction would clear trees and plants through wetlands and across streams, impacting important deer wintering habitat and other areas where public agencies and private citizens have spent millions of dollars to protect habitat for Maine’s brook trout.”
Judge Walker said the plaintiffs’ argument that the Army Corps assessment fell short of its review authority failed to resonate with him.
“Plaintiffs have not presented me with a contrary assessment by a regulatory agency such as the Maine Department of Environmental Protection or the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries or Wildlife,” Walker wrote in his opinion. “Given the absence of a strongly worded counter statement by another regulatory agency, and recognizing the deference owed to the Corps in its exercise of regulatory oversight, I conclude it is unlikely plaintiffs will demonstrate that the Corps’ assessment is arbitrary or unreasonable.
“I am struck by the absence of any outcry on the part of state or federal environmental agencies. I am engaged in a deferential review process, not a free-ranging fact finding exercise. This presents plaintiffs with a significant uphill climb,” Walker said.
Thorn Dickinson, president and CEO of project developer NECEC LLC Transmission, said in November that the legal action by the environmental groups was merely another attempt by opponents aligned with out-of-state fossil fuel companies to delay a project that all regulators agree is good for Maine’s environment and economy.