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Northern Pass misses deadline to unveil new route

Northern Pass officials missed their own deadline yesterday when they failed to unveil a new North Country route for their behind-schedule hydro-power line by year’s end.

Project officials had told investors in early 2012 they’d have a route in hand by the fall. When they didn’t, they pushed an announcement off again, to the end of 2012. In December, project officials reiterated that self-imposed deadline at a conference for financial investors.

While Northern Pass officials did post an “update” on the project’s website yesterday, the post provided no new information about the proposed route through the northern-most part of the state, where the project has faced the most opposition.

Instead, the post largely repeated what project officials have said previously as they’ve struggled to find landowners willing to sell them enough contiguous parcels to site a hydro-power line up north.

“We are pleased to report that we have identified a new route in the North Country that we will submit to the New Hampshire (project review board) in the future for consideration and review,” read the post.

It continued: “We believe . . . communication and dialogue is critical to the ultimate success of the new route and the project overall and felt it was necessary to take some additional time to continue these efforts before we publicly announce the new routing proposal.”

The post did not say if Northern Pass has acquired all the land it needs for the North Country section of the route or whether it is still trying to purchase final pieces. Nor did it give a new deadline by which a route would be made public or when construction would begin if the project receives the federal and state permits it needs.

But project officials have said previously that construction won’t begin before 2014; it was originally supposed to start in 2013.

Northern Pass spokesman Martin Murray declined to answer questions about the post yesterday, including whether the new route would include plans to bury power lines as opponents have requested.

The lack of new route details did not go unnoticed by project opponents yesterday.

The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests has been trying to block Northern Pass by acquiring conservation easements on property it believes is critical to a route. It has raised more than $1 million toward that effort.

Yesterday, forest society spokesman Jack Savage said Northern Pass’s route update left him reassured the society’s efforts have been successful.

“They’ve been saying for a year and a half now that they would identify a new route,” Savage said. “They’ve been saying for two years now that they would build public support. They’ve had a governor challenge them to build public support. And none of that has come to pass.

“I think you are seeing the result of a poorly conceived project falling flat,” Savage said.

Northern Pass, announced in 2010, would bring hydro-power from Canada through New Hampshire and into the New England energy grid.

Project partners – Hydro-Quebec, Northeast Utilities and Public Service of New Hampshire – plan to run the 140 miles of new line from Groveton south within existing PSNH transmission corridors. But they need to clear a new 40-mile path from Groveton north to the Canadian border.

Since May, Northern Pass has bought nearly 45 parcels in the northernmost part of the state, spending more than $4 million for one 300-acre parcel. But project officials have faced fierce opposition from locals and environmental groups.

Christophe Courchesne, a staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, was watching for an announcement from Northern Pass yesterday.

“There is nothing new in this announcement,” he said. “I am skeptical that as of today they are any closer to having a successful project than they have been for the last 18 months.”

Savage agreed. “I think they just don’t have a route,” he said. “The route is a fairy tale at this point. It’s a nice story for investors, but it’s not true.”

Opponents in the North Country were also awaiting an announcement from Northern Pass yesterday. Attorney Bob Baker of Columbia has monitored North Country land purchases by Northern Pass. He has also kept a close watch on deadlines set – and missed – by the project.

“The bravado and confidence of (Northern Pass’s) spokespersons are matched only by their lack of credibility,” Baker said yesterday by email.

Jim Dannis, another opponent from Dalton, called Northern Pass’s post a “non-announcement.”

“From my perspective,” Dannis wrote in an email, “this . . . is a major setback for Northern Pass and its owner, Northeast Utilities. Top executives from Northeast Utilities repeatedly promised a full route announcement by the end of the year. They failed to deliver. This not only hurts their credibility in the markets but calls into question whether Northern Pass has a viable route at all.”

Dannis also questioned the approach Northern Pass officials are taking with the route – to announce it publicly after they have built more community support.

“The announcement from today does not identify any route,” he wrote. “It gives no opportunity for the public to provide any additional input.”

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

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