JOHNSON MOUNTAIN TOWNSHIP — In the distance, past scattered brush piles and mounds of ground-up treetops streaked white with autumn snow, an excavator was at work.

The machine moved methodically, its boom swinging back and forth, scooping the tree grindings into the 22-cubic-yard bed of a yellow off-road dump truck on Tuesday. From there, the giant hauler lumbered down a steep hill and dropped the grindings. Soon, the fibrous heaps would be spread along the rocky, root-covered dirt floor of a 54-foot-wide corridor that slices through hardwood forest toward the mountainous horizon.

This is what it looks like to put a $1 billion transmission line project on ice – for a month? For longer? Forever?

No one knows the future of the the New England Clean Energy Connect, Maine’s most controversial energy project in a generation. But one thing is clear: By order of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, NECEC Transmission LLC has 30 days – starting from Nov. 23 – to stabilize the 145-mile corridor within specifications set by the agency. An overriding goal is to minimize soil erosion that could be triggered by rain or runoff and carry sediment into wetlands and streams.

An excavator swings to pick up more wood debris that is being trucked to a different part of the NECEC corridor in Johnson Mountain Township on Tuesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Erosion wasn’t a threat on Tuesday. Midday temperatures were stuck around 20 degrees, along with a gusty northwest wind. With frozen ground and winter conditions setting in across the high country, contractors are racing this week to cover exposed soil in areas that were under construction only 13 days ago.

Roughly 70 workers are performing the task. Most are in the hotly contested part of the 145-mile route known as Segment 1. This 53-mile section has been cut through largely undeveloped commercial forestland, from The Forks to the Quebec border, mostly west of Route 201. The excavator and dumper were working off Judd Road, in hardwood stands of maple and birch that had been harvested 30 or so years ago.

The abrupt pivot from full-on construction to urgent stabilization was set in motion by the results of the Nov. 2 election and a ruling three weeks later by the DEP.

Voters approved by a nearly 60-40 margin a ballot question that, among other things, bans construction of high-voltage power lines in the Upper Kennebec region.

The next day, NECEC officials filed a lawsuit challenging the referendum’s constitutionality, saying they would continue construction work while that challenge was pending. A court hearing is set for Dec. 15.

The DEP had to decide whether the newly passed law constituted a “change in situation or circumstance” that would compel the agency’s commissioner to suspend or revoke NECEC’s license. In the Nov. 23 ruling, DEP Commissioner Melanie Loyzim said that condition had been met and all construction work had to stop, unless or until a court grants the injunction request and allows work to continue.

By then, NECEC already had cleared more than 124 miles of right-of-way, erected more than 120 steel towers and spent more than $450 million – nearly half of the corridor’s estimated $1 billion cost.

VOLUNTARY STOPPAGE

As a practical matter, work had stopped on Nov. 19. That’s when Gov. Janet Mills certified the election and asked NECEC and its parent company, Avangrid, to honor the will of voters. Avangrid, NECEC and Central Maine Power are all U.S. subsidiaries of Spanish energy company Iberdrola.

Hours after Mills’ request, NECEC and Avangrid reluctantly agreed to a voluntary pause, at least until the court ruling. But even then, subsequent appeals and regulatory challenges will make it uncertain when or if the project can forward.

So here on the corridor, 90 miles and a world away from Augusta and all the legal and bureaucratic intrigue, there’s just a sense of purpose, of following direction and getting a job done. Because there’s no way to know whether the next visit will be to resume work or to take the unprecedented step of peeling away 11 months of heavy construction and restoring the forest landscape.

Either way, steps being taken over the next few weeks will make the corridor safe and secure for the duration, said Jim Boyle, a private consultant who’s working as the NECEC’s environmental compliance coordinator.

Jim Boyle, the environmental compliance coordinator for NECEC, stands near a section of the corridor in Johnson Mountain Township where wood debris was spread on Tuesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The company shouldn’t have any trouble complying with the DEP’s 30-day order, Boyle said. It’s on track to finish early.

“As we went along, we buttoned up each phase of the operation, as we always do,” he said. “Now that we’re suspended, it’s really just those portions that were under construction when we had to stop.”

To comply with the DEP order, crews must stabilize all disturbed soils and off-corridor access roads, spread all piles of wood chips and grindings no more than 2 inches thick, and backfill or cover uncompleted structure foundations or bore holes.

No steel transmission towers have been set yet in Segment 1, so that’s not an issue here.

In addition, NECEC must remove some of the miles of wooden mats that it placed over streams and wetlands to keep heavy equipment from damaging fragile waterways. Mats over large streams could get washed away during snowmelt, said David Madore, the DEP’s deputy commissioner.

These and the other stabilization measures are being monitored weekly by third-party inspectors working for the DEP.

“Then they will be inspecting the project before and after any significant rain event, which is defined as a half-inch in a 24-hour period,” Madore said.

CONSTRUCTION AFTERMATH

The NECEC project is designed to bring 1,200 megawatts of power from Canadian hydroelectric producer Hydro-Quebec to the New England electric grid through a converter station in Lewiston. The project is being built to help Massachusetts meet its clean energy goals. It’s being paid for by that state’s electric customers.

The 145-mile route is on land owned or controlled by CMP, except for a one-mile patch through Maine public lands near The Forks. Loyzim, the DEP commissioner, also has been considering whether to suspend the project permit based on an improper lease issued to cross that one-mile stretch. For now, that issue has taken a backseat to the license suspension.

A partially completed tower and a finished tower are seen in a section of the NECEC corridor along Route 201 in Moscow on Tuesday. The developer of the project has halted construction work on the corridor at the request of Gov. Janet Mills and a DEP order while legal challenges play out in court. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Most galling to project opponents is that the company continued to cut down trees in Segment 1 after the Nov. 2 vote. Although most of the area is privately owned working forest, it’s located in what environmental groups say is a nationally important expanse of undeveloped woodlands that will be further fragmented by the power line corridor.

That’s one reason the stabilization work is of special interest to Ed Buzzell, a project opponent and registered Maine guide who has a home in West Forks. He has been documenting the construction. On Saturday, he posted video on his Facebook page showing the aftermath of clearing near Moxie Stream, a scenic waterway that the corridor crosses.

“Trees just laid down,” Buzzell wrote. “Appears that trees cut to get as much done as possible before shutdown. It’s a real mess and hard to even get into the stream through all the slash. Where are the DEP inspectors?”

Asked about Buzzell’s concerns, Boyle said he hadn’t been to the stream crossing in a couple of weeks, but that most people aren’t familiar with environmental regulation details. And he praised the practices of the company that performed the clearing and now is doing the stabilization, Northern Clearing of Ashland, Wisconsin.

“We’re in compliance,” said Boyle, a former state representative from Gorham with 31 years of environmental consulting experience. “These guys are doing a great job.”

NECEC’S FUTURE UNKNOWN

Drivers on Route 201 north of Bingham are greeted by a scene that symbolizes NECEC’s uncertain future.

On the eastern side of the roadway in Moscow, where the corridor climbs out of the Kennebec River valley from the Wyman Dam, a 95-foot tall steel tower and twin crossbars stand near the crest. Closer to the road is a partly erected tower. The other pieces are resting on the ground horizontally, waiting to be either stood up someday and connected to transmission lines or trucked away.

This is Segment 2, which runs from Wyman Dam to The Forks. It’s one of the four segments that make up roughly two-thirds of the project and follow existing CMP transmission corridors. These areas need only minor stabilization work, Boyle said.

A crew sprays straw mulch along a section of the NECEC corridor in Johnson Mountain Township on Tuesday. The straw mulch is being used to help prevent soil erosion along the corridor. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

So in the days ahead, work will center on Segment 1.

Where wood grindings aren’t plentiful, NECEC is using straw to stabilize exposed soil. Three separate crews have been at work, sometimes blowing 1,000 bales of straw a day.

Straw-blowing was taking place Tuesday along the Capital Road, a major logging truck artery that connects Route 201 and Moosehead Lake.

Here, crews were loading straw bales onto the bed of a rubber-tracked vehicle. A mulching machine was mounted on the rear. After loading, the driver steered the vehicle onto a section of recently cut corridor parallel to Capital Road.

As a worker fed bales into the mulcher, another crew member moved the chute back and forth, spraying the straw onto the ground. The vehicle crawled along, leaving behind a cloud of straw dust and a golden carpet atop the snow-white corridor.

Within minutes, the vehicle began fading into the dust and the distance. Soon – not unlike the project’s future – it was hard to make out.


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