Facing certain defeat in front of the Board of Environmental Protection, Bangor Hydro Electric has withdrawn its application for a new transmission line across Hancock and Washington Counties in Downeast Maine, which was strongly opposed by the Natural Resources Council of Maine and citizens from throughout the state and region.
“This is great news for the lakes, forests and rivers of Downeast Maine and the people who love them,” said Cathy Johnson, North Woods Project Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “From the start we believed that it makes no sense at all to cut a brand new corridor through a beautiful undeveloped area of lakes and rivers when there is an existing, perfectly good alternative.”
The weekend before Christmas, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) released its draft order recommending denial of Bangor Hydro’s proposed new transmission line that would have cut a 170 foot wide swath 84 miles long across Washington and Hancock Counties. The line would have passed between the town of Orrington, north of Bangor, and Baileyville, on the New Brunswick border.
Over the past four years, the Natural Resources Council of Maine has intervened before the Land Use Regulation Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection, challenging the need for the line, which had not been demonstrated, and advocating for use of the existing “MEPCO” corridor, if the state determined that an additional line was needed. The Council opposed the proposed siting of this transmission line because it would cut through a spectacular, remote, and undeveloped part of Maine that has significant natural, aesthetic and recreational resources.
This 84-mile corridor (within Maine) would have crossed the Narraguagus, Machias and St. Croix Rivers, all wonderful fishing and canoeing rivers. The line would go within one mile of 22 lakes or ponds, including two identified by the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) as of statewide significance (Alligator and Lower Sabao Lakes) and 8 of regional significance (First, Second, Fourth and Fifth Machias Lakes, and Deer, Green, Campbell, and Burnt Land Lakes).
The Council believed that Bangor Hydro should have been required to consolidate the proposed line with an existing line which would have less adverse environmental impact, involve fewer acres of clearcutting, avoid creation of a new transmission corridor, and would not involve a significant cost increase for the project. The Department of Environmental Protection agreed.
In its draft order, the DEP found that the Bangor Hydro’s proposed route would unreasonably harm wildlife habitat, freshwater fisheries, and wetlands and would unreasonably interfere with scenic, aesthetic, and recreational values of the region. DEP also found that both the route proposed by the Natural Resources Council and another route proposed by IP were practicable alternatives that would have less overall adverse environmental impact than the route proposed by Bangor Hydro.
In addition to the Council, International Paper also opposed the proposed line. Bangor Hydro’s proposed route would have crossed about 40 miles of land owned by IP. IP proposed a third alternative: they proposed that the new line run parallel to the existing Stud Mill Road in Washington County, next to the corridor cut by the natural gas pipeline which was built a few years ago.
“All along we have said that an alternative route exists that would cause far less environmental harm,” said Cathy Johnson. “If Bangor Hydro wants and needs to build a new transmission line, it should follow the existing MEPCO line, which passes north of the Downeast Lakes Region, does not cross the Machias, Narraguagus or St. Croix Rivers, does not impact any prime lakes or rivers, and follows a secondary highway for over half its route. If the line is to be built at all, it should be built along the existing transmission corridor in an area already impacted by development.”
“This case is very important in our efforts to protect the undeveloped character of interior Hancock and Washington Counties,” said Johnson. “However, it is equally important for the important precedent that it establishes. The Board of Environmental Protection has agreed with our position that new transmission lines should be consolidated with existing corridors whenever possible in order to limit the adverse impacts cause by new corridors through undeveloped areas.”
Bangor Hydro first proposed to build this line in the early 1990s. They received both state and federal permits at that time but never began construction. Because construction had not begun, the state permits had to be renewed every few years. In the late 1990s, the Council intervened in the proceedings arguing that the application should not be automatically renewed. The Council argued that the proposal should be reevaluated as if it were a new application because of changes in land protection laws, better information about the natural resources values of the Down East region and the recent listing of the Atlantic salmon as an endangered species.
The Board of Environmental Protection agreed and Bangor Hydro was ordered to submit new information.
The Council hired a number of experts on ecological and utility issues to evaluate and compare the impacts of the proposed brand new corridor in an undeveloped area with the impacts of simply widening an existing corridor. Based on that evaluation, the Council argued that the proposed route should be consolidated with the existing Maine Power Company (MEPCO) transmission line corridor which is located north of the route proposed by Bangor Hydro.
In September and October of 2001, the Board of Environmental Protection held four days of hearings on the proposed transmission line which would have cut a new 170 foot swath right across the middle of the beautiful lake and river studded undeveloped Downeast Lakes Wildlands Area.