By Fred Bever
Central Maine Power (CMP) is backing off its proposal to string high-voltage transmission lines over the scenic Kennebec River Gorge. CMP now says that it wants to build a tunnel under the gorge, as part of its $950 million project to bring hydro-electricity from Canada to Massachusetts.
A lot of the opposition to CMP's plan has emanated from towns around the gorge — Caratunk, the Forks, West Forks, Alna — where rafting and other nature-based tourism enterprises are a dominant economic force. At the same time, state environmental regulators have also been peppering CMP with skeptical questions about the necessity of the river-crossing and have called for a more thorough analysis of alternatives.
Now CMP is abandoning the aerial solution and going underground.
John Carroll is a CMP spokesperson.
"We've had a lot of good feedback with regulators back and forth over a variety of issues around the project, and this seems to be the one that is raising the most concerns, and we're trying to address those,” says Carroll.
Opponents are casting the decision as a sign that CMP knows the project is in trouble.
"This gambit with the Gorge, I see it as sort of a desperate move,” says Dylan Voorhees, the energy programs director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
The council is part of a coalition of environmental groups, competing electricity generators, and project neighbors that have joined forces in recent months. Voorhees and others say that while taking the transmission line under the river is likely better than going above, the entire project, which would cut 53 miles of new corridor through western Maine forests, should still be shelved.
"I think this is a reaction to overwhelming concern about the impact this project would have on the Kennebec River, which is one of a whole bunch of concerns that people would have about the line,” Voorhees says.
If approved by environmental regulators, the underground plan would cut the value of a mitigation deal CMP struck with some area stakeholders — rafters, trail advocates and landowners. The plan could have provided some $22 million for economic development and trail access in the area. But the "memorandum of understanding" between those parties allows that to be reduced to around $5 million in the event that transmission lines do not go overhead.
Larry Warren is the founder of the Maine Huts and Trails system, and one of the group that negotiated that MOU. He says the partnership with CMP will still be a good thing for the region's outdoors economy.
"I'm optimistic,” Warren says. “We communicated what we think are some of the obvious opportunities for expanding economic development potential of the region, through trails."
Carroll notes that tunneling under the river was always one of CMP's contingency plans. The estimated $37 million cost, he adds, falls within the budget outlined by CMP when it won the bid for Massachusetts' clean energy request for proposals.
"It's a different technology, obviously, than we use on a regular basis,” Carroll says. “But it's not untried or untested or unfamiliar. But it's actually used on a fairly regular basis for things like pipelines. So it's different, it will be interesting to watch and be part of, but it's easily understood and can be done properly."
And within the original timeline, he says, which calls for project completion in 2022. The state's Public Utilities Commission, which is considering whether the project's benefits outweigh negative effects on the state, could issue a decision in late December. Environmental regulators, meanwhile, have yet to set public hearings on the land use permit CMP needs.