Amid repeated calls for her to act, Maine’s top environmental regulator Friday scheduled a hearing to determine whether construction on the New England Clean Energy Connect corridor should be allowed to continue in light of Tuesday’s statewide vote against the project.
Maine Environmental Protection Commissioner Melanie Loyzim issued a letter Friday to the project’s developer, NECEC Transmission LLC, saying she is scheduling a hearing for Nov. 22 to determine the extent to which Tuesday’s passage of Question 1 affects an ongoing proceeding that could potentially result in the project’s environmental permit being suspended or revoked.
“(Maine law states) the Commissioner may revoke or suspend a license upon making certain findings, including a finding that: ‘There has been a change in condition or circumstance that requires revocation or suspension of a license,’ ” Loyzim’s letter states. “I have determined that the referendum result, if certified such that it will become law, represents an additional change in circumstance that may require suspension of the NECEC Order.”
Opponents of the power corridor in western Maine renewed calls Friday for Central Maine Power parent company Avangrid, which also owns NECEC Transmission, to halt construction after voters decisively sided with banning the $1 billion project this week.
“It is time for CMP to stop the construction,” said Tom Saviello, an organizer of the No CMP Corridor campaign, in an online news conference Friday. “It is obvious that the will of the people has spoken and they are desperate to try and trample on our rights.”
Loyzim “needs to step in now and stop the destruction,” Saviello said. “It is your responsibility to protect the state’s environment. Not acting would be a dereliction of duty.”
On Tuesday, about 60 percent of voters approved a referendum that bans construction of high-voltage power lines in the Upper Kennebec region and requires the Maine Legislature to approve any similar projects statewide retroactively to 2020. It also requires the Legislature, retroactive to 2014, to approve any such projects that use public land by a two-thirds majority.
Despite popular rejection of the NECEC project, Avangrid has vowed to continue construction of the 145-mile corridor, which is proceeding. On Wednesday, it filed a lawsuit to scrap the new law, arguing it is unconstitutional. Avangrid, CMP and NECEC Transmission are all U.S. subsidiaries of Spanish energy company Iberdrola.
The controversial project would connect to existing transmission lines in western Maine through a 53-mile stretch of working forest. The transmission line would bring power from Canadian hydroelectric energy producer Hydro-Quebec to the regional grid to benefit Massachusetts energy consumers, who are paying for the project.
In its complaint, Avangrid said almost $450 million had already been spent on the corridor, more than 80 percent of its right-of-way has been cleared and more than 120 structures have been erected.
“This is a fully permitted project, and we intend to keep hundreds of Maine workers on the job unless otherwise ordered,” said NECEC Transmission CEO Thorn Dickinson in a statement. “We believe in this vital clean energy project and will continue to advocate for it while this lawsuit proceeds before the courts.”
The power company’s insistence on continuing construction after Tuesday’s referendum is an insult, said Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, at Friday’s news conference.
“It is time for CMP to do right by this state and by their own customers,” Grohoski said. “Stop construction immediately. To do otherwise is an affront to Maine people and our right to self-governance.”
The state DEP has not directly responded to calls for it to force a halt to the project. Loyzim’s letter represents its first public acknowledgment of Question 1’s passage.
On Thursday, the Natural Resources Council of Maine asked the department to order a stay of the project, arguing that to allow continued construction and forest clearing before the referendum goes into effect early next year would cause irreparable harm.
In its filing, the environmental group noted a Superior Court ruling that invalidated the public land lease for a one-mile portion of the project because it had been improperly approved, and ongoing DEP proceedings on whether to suspend or revoke permits called into question by that ruling.
“Central Maine Power was rebuked thoroughly by the people of Maine and their customers,” said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, at Friday’s news conference. “But this arrogant foreign-owned corporation continues to inflict lasting damage to this unique part of our state.
“Central Maine Power is plowing through the Upper Kennebec region with no public land lease and without the support of Maine voters,” Bennett added. “CMP is incapable of doing the right thing, (and) the Department of Environmental Protection needs to make them stop.”