Our Turn: Northern Pass ignores conservation commission
New Hampshire has a long tradition of supporting local conservation commissions. These commissions, authorized by state law and staffed by volunteers, have specific responsibilities to inventory and safeguard natural resources within their communities.
Last July, the Easton Conservation Commission invited PSNH to a meeting to discuss members’ concerns regarding the Northern Pass project. We believe the project would have a severe impact on our town, including the nearly 65 percent of Easton which lies within the White Mountain National Forest. This was our attempt to exercise due diligence around a large project with many unanswered questions.
Our request appeared to be met with enthusiasm by Gary Long, then PSNH’s president and chief operating officer, and Martin Murray, project spokesman. I explained that our meeting would need to be conducted in public, and with proper notice as required by state law. In August, Long sent a letter to us, deferring the meeting, and answers to our questions, to a later date “well before the start of the Site Evaluation Committee process.”
Long suggested that we attend a Northern Pass open house in the meantime. Members of our commission attended meetings in both Lincoln and Sugar Hill. Our questions were neither answered nor followed up. In Sugar Hill, essentially all members of the general public walked out when project officials refused to answer questions, directly and in the open.
At that meeting, in October 2013, Anne Bartosewicz, then project director of Northern Pass, assured me that our letter was on her desk and that we would receive an answer shortly.
More than seven months later, in a letter written by Jerry Fortier, the new project director, we finally received a response to many of our questions. Fortier characterized the response as “timely” and noted that some questions were “unanswerable.” In addition to being grossly overdue, his response was incomplete and deficient. A number of the answers even indicated impacts far worse than we had previously understood. There was no further word on a meeting.
By delaying their response seven months, PSNH and Northern Pass have effectively limited the Easton Conservation Commission’s ability to recommend alternatives and project-related mitigation measures within the Department of Energy scoping process. While considerable time was still available back in July 2013, the federal EIS process has since closed and the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee process appears to be gearing up.
PSNH and Northern Pass have turned their backs on a vital New Hampshire institution: the conservation commission. In the seven months that have passed since we originally agreed to meet, Northern Pass has been privately at work developing new plans in Easton, and spending from a limitless lobbying and PR budget aimed at swaying stakeholders including elected officials, regulators and the public.
The Easton Conservation Commission, on the other hand, has developed a credible alternative of burying the lines in existing softened transportation corridors, with benefits for both the natural and cultural landscape and to protect the White Mountain National Forest. Our route is 10 percent shorter, does not require heliports in the forest nor extensive helicopter use, does not cross the state’s highest value habitat and recreational resources, and would require no new towers. In contrast, Northern Pass proposes 337 towers, of up to 125 feet in height, across Easton, Sugar Hill and Lincoln. We also believe our route would cost less than crossing the unforgiving Kinsman Ridge, including the Appalachian Trail, but we cannot get the company to share relevant burial costs.
Northern Pass’s estimates of burial are so high that they appear to apply to burial along the existing PSNH right-of-way, not a softened corridor.
We recommend that all conservation commissions on the proposed route develop and present a low-impact route suitable for their own town, environment and landscape. Further, we encourage all members of New Hampshire’s many conservation commissions statewide to support HB 569 and SB 200 as they work their ways through the Senate this session.
(Roy Stever is chairman of the Easton Conservation Commission. The column was also signed by Commissioners Kris Pastoriza, Anita Craven, Maria Hynes, Steve Sabre, Deborah Stever and Beth Harwood, and alternative members Michael Platt, Fallon Leigh O’Brien and Carl Lakes.)