Central Maine Power wants to bury the portion of its planned electrical transmission line from Quebec that crosses the scenic Kennebec River Gorge, a concession to environmentalists and local activists opposed to the project.

The company on Thursday notified regulators that it intends to drill under the river, in northern Somerset County, instead of crossing the gorge with elevated electrical lines.

In a prepared statement, CMP CEO Doug Herling said burying the line has always been under consideration.

“We believe this change may also encourage stronger support from those who appreciate the project’s benefits, but want to preserve the commercial and aesthetic value of the river as well,” Herling said.

Avoiding an aerial crossing of the river addresses the concerns of Maine’s environmental regulators, local communities and other stakeholders, CMP said. The company says it plans to use horizontal directional drilling to “preserve the scenic and recreational value” of the gorge.

In June, CMP said burying the line would add $37 million to the $950 million project. It’s unclear what kind of regulatory approvals would be needed to bury the line under the riverbed.

CMP planned to string transmission lines 200 feet above the gorge, a 10-mile stretch of granite canyon popular as a backcountry, white-water rafting destination. The gorge has been a flashpoint in the fight to stop CMP’s transmission line, with opponents arguing that the development will mar an otherwise untouched wilderness.

The company’s new approach didn’t mollify vocal opponents of the project who worry the transmission line will destroy wildlife habitat and scenic vistas.

“The majority of the people are opposing this because of what it will do to the western mountains, not what it will do to the gorge,” said Peter Dostie, a former white-water rafter and owner of a lodge in West Forks. “We have no compromise.”

Dostie thinks CMP’s announcement signals the company is “backpedaling” because it is worried it may not get state approval for the project.

“I don’t think this is going to happen, I think they are on the run and the whole thing is going to be abandoned,” he said.

Tania Merette, who sells real estate in the Moose River valley near the proposed corridor, said burying lines made the project “a little less heinous,” but would still ruin the area’s pristine wilderness.

“It doesn’t change my opinion at all,” Merette said. “I think they are throwing us a little bone and hoping we are going to chase it.”

Pete Dostie rows on the Kennebec River on June 13 within an area that Avangrid, the parent company of Central Maine Power Co., has identified for its high-voltage transmission line. Dostie, a former river guide who has rafted through the Kennebec Gorge for four decades, opposes the project. “This is one of the last pure river gorges in the Northeast,” he says.

Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, called CMP’s announcement “a desperate gambit to salvage its controversial power line proposal.”

“This project is carefully designed to maximize profits for CMP and Hydro-Quebec, but it remains a bad deal for Maine. Burying a very short segment of the line under the Kennebec Gorge simply brings more attention to the project’s many flaws, which collectively should be grounds for its rejection by the state agencies responsible for reviewing it,” Voorhees said in a written statement.

UNCERTAINTY AHEAD

If CMP does put the proposed line under the Kennebec River, a collection of area rafting companies and businesses could see a drastic reduction in the financial incentive CMP offered in exchange for the group’s support for the project.

In June, the company signed an agreement with a planned nonprofit called Western Mountains and Rivers Corp. to invest $22 million into nature tourism and conservation if its transmission line were strung over the gorge. But if CMP installs the line under the gorge, or in a different location, Western Mountains and Rivers will get between $5 million but not more than $10 million, according to the agreement.

Members of the Western Mountains and Rivers board of directors did not respond to interview requests Thursday.

Maine’s three-member Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to vote in late December on whether to issue a permit for the project. At least 100 people turned out to a public hearing on the proposal Wednesday, most to express their opposition to the proposal.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is reviewing construction permit applications for the project filed by CMP.

The 145-mile electrical line would bring power produced by hydroelectric dams in Quebec to Massachusetts through Western Maine. Massachusetts electric utilities in June signed an agreement with Avangrid, CMP’s parent company, to build a nearly $1 billion high-voltage transmission line called the New England Clean Power Connection. The project is expected to bring 1,200 megawatts to the Bay State, enough to power roughly 1 million homes.

CMP says the line is expected to create 1,700 temporary construction jobs and contribute $18 million a year in new tax revenue. The company also estimated that Maine ratepayers could save around $40 million a year because of lower wholesale electricity costs in New England because of the new transmission line.

The project has been opposed by a collection of environmental groups that say it will destroy a wilderness and interrupt the Appalachian Trail without reducing carbon emissions. Construction is also opposed by companies that own natural gas power plants in Maine and are worried about competition from imported Canadian hydropower.

The proposal has received support from business and organized labor for the jobs and tax revenue it is projected to create.

Jason Levesque, the mayor of Auburn, supports the plan because of the clean power he believes it will bring to New England. Amending the construction plan shows CMP is “willing to address concerns as they come up,” Levesque said.

“I am looking forward to seeing what CMP will do to make all parties as happy as possible,” he added. “Hopefully this gets done, and the sooner the better as far as I’m concerned.”

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

 

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