Central Maine Power Co. plans to begin construction of a 145-mile transmission corridor from the Canadian border to Lewiston this spring even though the project still needs two permits and could be blocked by a pending referendum.

The $1 billion transmission line is designed to deliver hydroelectric power from Quebec through Maine’s North Woods to customers in Massachusetts. However, state officials are currently validating thousands of signatures that opponents of the project hope will place a referendum on the November ballot to revoke a key state regulatory approval for the corridor.

On Friday, CMP said that contracts worth a total of about $12 million already have been signed with three Maine companies for wooden “mats” that would be used to help move heavy equipment through the North Woods. The company is evaluating other contracts for construction of the power line but hasn’t yet signed them, said Thorn Dickinson, vice president of business development for Avangrid, CMP’s parent company.

The company still is awaiting permits for the project from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers. Dickinson said the company expects those approvals to be granted by spring.

“Our whole planning and focus is on getting this project ready to go and starting construction” in the second quarter of the year, he said.

However, a leading opponent of the corridor project said CMP shouldn’t count on beginning its work this spring.

“CMP seems desperate to market the appearance that everything for the corridor project is on schedule,” said Sandi Howard, director of Say No to NECEC (New England Clean Energy Connect, CMP’s name for the project). “CMP is behind and they’re trying to catch up.”

Howard said some of the decisions by regulators, including the upcoming one from the Maine DEP, likely will be appealed, possibly delaying the final issuance of permits. And CMP and the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which has approved the project, may still have to deal with opposition from some of the towns the corridor will traverse.

Supporters of “No CMP Corridor” attend a rally Feb. 3 after submitting more than 75,000 signatures to state election officials calling for a referendum on the proposed $1 billion transmission line aimed at bringing Canadian hydropower to the New England grid. Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

If CMP starts construction this spring, Howard said, it would run the risk of wasting money and effort if voters in November approve the referendum requiring the PUC to withdraw its approval of the project.

“CMP would be taking a huge investment risk if they decide to go ahead with construction,” she said.

But Anthony Buxton, a lawyer representing industrial consumers of electricity who support the corridor project, said legal challenges to the permits are unlikely to result in the courts calling for a delay of those approvals. That would clear the way for work to proceed while the permits are challenged, he said.

If the referendum is approved by voters, that is also likely to end up in court because it would direct the PUC to reverse a decision it already has made, Buxton said.

“If it passes, it’s an absolute certainty that the effect would be subject to legal challenge,” he said.

Regardless of the possible legal maneuvering, the companies that received contracts this week said they appreciate the work.

The mats are”essentially portable roads,” Dickinson said, and the contracts call for deliveries to start right away. The $12 million value of the contracts is divided almost evenly among the three Maine companies that were awarded the work: Maine Timber in New Portland, Oxford Timber in Oxford and Glidden Mat in Parkman.

Dickinson said the initial orders are for 30,000 mats, each of which measures 4 feet by 16 feet. That number will allow work on the project to begin, he said, although more of the mats will be needed eventually.

The contracts are especially well-timed for Maine Timber, said Justin Jordan, who bought the business at a foreclosure auction in December for $100,000 plus $74,000 the business owed in back taxes.

“We’ve gone from, ‘What are we going to do with this building?’ to being able to make sure all eight workers in the business have work to do,” said Jordan, who also owns a steel fabrication business.

Mike Record, who owns Oxford Timber, said the mats are made out of mixed hardwoods, such as oak and maple, and can even be made of beechwood, which is often sold more cheaply for use as pulp. Record said he makes 12,000 to 15,000 mats a year at his operation of about a dozen workers, but that he will have to buy some mats from other manufacturers in the state to be able to fill CMP’s orders while taking care of other customers.

“It will basically affect all the mat manufacturers in the state,” and provide more work for loggers, Record said. His workers, he said, will have “all the overtime opportunities they want.”

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