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Environmental group pans data on hydro project

The Appalachian Mountain Club initiated a war of words yesterday with Northern Pass officials after accusing Northern Pass of failing to give the public or the government adequate information about how visible the project's towers and transmission lines would be.

According to the AMC's research, 95,000 acres in the state will be 'visually impacted' by the project, meaning at least one tower will be visible within that acreage. An AMC study released yesterday showed 9,000 of those acres are in Concord.

Officials at AMC faulted Northern Pass yesterday for not including any of this 'visual impact' in its permit application to federal authorities. They submitted their report yesterday to federal officials who will decide whether to allow the project to proceed.

'I have been involved in environmental impact studies for federal regulatory commissions and several other agencies for 30 years, and I've never seen (an application) get to this stage without information like this,' said Ken Kimball, research director for the AMC.

Martin Murray, spokesman for Northern Pass, said that information will be provided once it's completed.

'They are either misunderstanding the (permitting) process or are deliberately distorting it,' Murray said. 'The (permitting) process is moving forward. The visual impact assessment will be produced as part of the permitting process. There is still a lot of work that has to be done by experts in the field about what the potential impact might be.'

Northern Pass, announced two years ago, would bring hydropower from Canada through New Hampshire and into the New England grid. It's a private venture between Northeast Utilities, Public Service of New Hampshire and Hydro-Quebec that will require both federal and state approval.

The high-voltage transmission lines would run along existing power line corridors from Groveton south. But Northern Pass must clear a new 40-mile route in northern New Hampshire, from the Canadian border to Groveton.

The federal permitting process is under way but was put on hold when substantial criticism from the public forced Northern Pass to rethink the path of those northern 40 miles. Project officials are redesigning that section of the route now and say they'll unveil it by year's end.

Last year, Northern Pass released several photo simulations showing what areas along the route would look like once the transmission towers were built. In its lengthy critique of the project released yesterday, AMC said those simulations were misleading and did not sufficiently tell the public what the project would look like.

Kimball, who led the AMC study released yesterday, faulted one photo in particular for being taken at 5:30 p.m., when the sun cast shadows over the project's proposed route. He faulted another photo, from Franklin, for being taken too far from the proposed route.

How, Kimball asked yesterday, is the public supposed to tell federal officials how they feel about the project without a true and comprehensive depiction of the project's towers and lines?

'We are being asked to (weigh in with federal permitting authorities) not only with no data but also when one-third of the route (in the North Country) has not yet been identified,' Kimball said.

LandWorks of Vermont, a landscaping, planning and design company, has been working on the sort of visual impact assessment for Northern Pass that Kimball wants, said the company's principal, David Raphael. That report will be released when the work is done, Raphael said.

He said yesterday the visual simulation photographs that Kimball is criticizing were never intended to be a thorough description of how the project's towers and lines would look. That information was not submitted to federal permitting authorities and was done, he and Murray said, to give the public a sense of what the project would look like.

'I have absolutely no problem with the AMC conducting their own visual assessment,' said Raphael, who is an AMC member. 'I have no problem with the AMC being opposed to this project. I welcome that view. What I don't appreciate is being criticized without any basis or any substation.'

He said neither Kimball nor anyone else from the AMC contacted him about his work before issuing the critique yesterday. And he said Kimball's criticism of two of the photos in the Northern Pass visual simulation were off-base.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

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