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‘Northern Trespass’ film takes one side, draws sell-out crowd to Red River Theaters

Opponents of Northern Pass ask a loaded question in their new movie, Northern Trespass, a one-sided take on the proposed hydropower line from Canada: Would you prefer the New Hampshire landscape with or without giant, buzzing transmission towers that may or may not increase cases of childhood leukemia?

This “documentary” isn’t a balanced look at the project – and that’s intentional, filmmakers Jan Marvel and Michelle Vaughn of Thornton said yesterday.

“People have said, ‘What about the other side?’ ” Marvel said. “When (Northern Pass officials) put out their brochures, did they ask our side? When they put out television ads and newspaper ads, did they present our side? This isn’t about helping them get their message across. This is about getting our message across.”

Red River Theatres screened the film Wednesday night to a sold-out crowd of 156 viewers. When the filmmakers took questions afterward, the first several speakers thanked them again and again for their work. And almost half the audience signed up for email alerts about future protests.

Marvel and Vaughn said they’re in talks with Red River to show the movie again, and it will be screened in Colebrook and Bethlehem in the coming weeks. It’s also for sale for $20 at northerntresspass.com.

The Monitor attended the Wednesday night screening to see where the film got it right (the passion of the opposition) and where it stretched the truth (assertions the project will resort to eminent domain). But first an overview of the project, which is missing in the film.

Northern Pass is a partnership between Northeast Utilities, Public Service of New Hampshire and Hydro-Quebec to bring hydropower to New England by running a 187-mile transmission line from Canada to Deerfield. The project still needs federal and state approvals.

The proposed transmission line would begin in Pittsburg, travel south to Franklin and then east, through Northfield, Canterbury and Concord, to Deerfield, where it would connect to the New England energy grid. The project requires cutting a new 40-mile right-of-way through northern New Hampshire, which is why the opposition has been most intense there. The remainder of the line would run alongside PSNH’s existing transmission lines, although the towers would be taller than those there now.

Here’s an assessment of the film’s main assertions:

Claim: Northern Pass officials will take land by eminent domain for their transmission line if landowners are unwilling to sell. The filmmakers traveled to New London, Conn., to interview a man whose neighborhood was taken through eminent domain by drug company Pfizer nearly 12 years ago.

This is one of the film’s major arguments.

Truth: While Northern Pass officials did initially indicate they’d consider using eminent domain when they announced the project in 2010, the Legislature has since passed a law forbidding private projects like Northern Pass from using eminent domain.

In an interview yesterday, Vaughn and Marvel said they are convinced that Northern Pass will find a “loophole” in the law if they cannot purchase all the land they need.

Claim: The high-voltage transmission line will emit a loud buzzing sound audible from several yards away.

Truth: The lines will make noise, especially in wet weather, although it is impossible to know whether Northern Pass’s lines would emit the same level of noise as the transmission lines shown in the film. Asked about potential noise, Northern Pass spokesman Martin Murray said, “A humming noise may be heard by those within a right of way,” in an email. “Engineers work to create line designs that limit the amount of noise.”

Claim: Northern Pass’s 1,500 steel towers will be 135 feet tall, which is far taller than the 40-foot poles currently carrying PSNH’s transmission lines.

Truth: Some towers will be that high or taller (in Allenstown, at least one will reach 155 feet), but most towers will be closer to 90 feet tall. The tower heights vary town by town, and it’s difficult to tell from route maps how visible those towers will be. A 145-foot tall tower may not be visible if it sits in a valley of much taller trees.

To see the tower heights proposed for each community along the proposed route, visit northernpass.us and click on “In My Town.”

Claim: Northern Pass will use herbicide sprays to control vegetation in the rights-of-way. An organic farmer from Pittsburg said he feared the spraying would jeopardize his organic certification.

Truth: Project spokesman Martin Murray said Northern Pass would use mechanical clearing, just as PSNH has done for many years. State records confirm that PSNH has not sought the state’s permission to use herbicides for many years.

Murray also said the farmer’s land is no longer on the proposed route because the route has been redirected since the film was finished in the spring. The farmer, John Amey, could not be reached last night for comment.

Claim: Northern Pass’s lines will create an electromagnetic field that will increase health problems in people who live nearby. In the film, Dr. Campbell McLaren, an emergency room doctor in Littleton, says other communities along high-voltage lines have seen cases of childhood leukemia double.

McLaren also said the presence of Northern Pass transmission towers will increase the stress of those living nearby because the lines “reminds us of the oppressor.”

Truth: Experts dispute the link between high-voltage lines and an increase in health concerns.

The film quotes a 1987 article in the New York Times about a New York State Health Department study that found that “children with leukemia or brain cancer are more likely than healthy children to be living in homes where exposure to the magnetic fields generated by electric power lines is high.”

Asked to respond, Murray said the majority of the line is direct current, which poses no health risks. The line from Pittsburg to Franklin will carry direct current. The power will be converted to alternating current, which is associated with health risks, in Franklin, and the line will carry alternating current from Franklin to Deerfield.

“We have a fact sheet available regarding studies focused on (electromagnetic fields) and AC lines that we can share,” Murray wrote. “And, it is an issue that can be discussed at our open house events.”

The open houses, where a Northern Pass official will be available to answer questions, begin Aug. 5 in Millsfield. For a schedule, visit northernpass.us/openhouses.

Claim: While Northern Pass says it will create 1,200 jobs, the better paid jobs will go to out-of-state workers because New Hampshire doesn’t have workers with the relevant training. The film points to cars with out-of-state license plates at Northern Pass job sites.

Truth: Murray said Northern Pass is committed to giving New Hampshire workers priority when hiring. Joe Casey, president of the New Hampshire Building and Construction Trade Council, reiterated that yesterday, saying the union has negotiated an agreement with Northern Pass that New Hampshire workers will be used to fill all construction jobs unless there are none available.

Casey said he believes New Hampshire can produce all the workers necessary. “I’m a New Hampshire native,” he said yesterday. “I would never support a project of this magnitude that wasn’t going to put New Hampshire people to work. That’s my whole priority.”

Asked about the out-of-state license plates, Murray said Northern Pass has used an in-state company to do its fieldwork. He said the federal Department of Energy is doing its own field work with out-of-state companies. “Those workers rent cars, which may have plates from out of state,” he said.

Claim: The film asserts that Northern Pass is still considering trying to run its line through the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters, a vast swath of land in the North Country protected by a conservation easement.

Truth: Northern Pass has included that possible route in its latest filing with the federal Department of Energy. Murray said the project had to list a number of alternative routes to comply with federal requirements. But it does not intend to use that land, he said.

“In the case of the Connecticut Lake Headwaters property, it is owned by others,” he said. “We do not have a right to use it, nor have we requested to do so.”

Yesterday, Marvel and Vaughn said they opted against exploring some of these issues further in the film because they wanted to keep it to 60 minutes. They don’t think the film has suffered for it.

“This film is having the exact response we were hoping for,” Marvel said. “People are seeing it and saying, ‘I really don’t know much about the project. Now that I know more, I really want to do something.’ ”

This story has been updated.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323,

atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

Many miles of the announced new route and its alternate pass over or under the property of landowners in Clarksville and Stewartstown who have not consented to Northern Pass's intended use of their land for a private transmission corridor--a corridor that will be controlled by the Province of Quebec and its crown corporation, Hydro Quebec. Northern Pass absolutely is continuing its use of the threat of eminent domain; and the film makers are on solid ground including this nasty attempt to use the eminent domain powers of the State of New Hampshire to try to seize town roads and private property for the benefit of a foreign power and its wholly owned power generation company, Hydro Quebec. Kudos to the film makers!

The film, "NorthernTrespass", however well intentioned, loses sight of the larger issue of our unrelenting appetite for energy, that justifies this project in the minds of many. The film may skirt the truth on several of the issues relating to the power lines, while pandering to the NIMBY mentality that is so easy to fall into when residing in one of many pleasant little hamlets across our state. The same NIMBY attitude that says no to transmission lines also says no to wind power. I think the real issue here is the fact HydroQuebec will be flooding an area nearly the size of New Hampshire--at considerable environmental cost. Whether the "green energy" of this hydro project outweighs the environmental costs, and what economic effect this mega-project will have on smaller scale, more environmentally friendly projects in future, are not being addressed by the utilities, and should be the real topic of conversation.

The term "NIMBY" implies a situation where people opposing a project NEED whatever benefit it is offering, they just don't want it in their backyards. New Hampshire does not NEED the power Northern Pass would provide, which is why the NH legislature forbade it from invoking eminent domain. Contrary to your assertion about our "unrelenting appetite for energy," ISO New England, which oversees the region's power grid, projects that the overall demand for energy in New England will remain FLAT over the next 10 years, due to aggressive investments in energy efficiency by the England states. PSNH NEEDS the money that leasing the power lines to Hydro-Quebec will provide, as the company is hemoraging customers to other providers that offer cleaner, cheaper options. This project is driven by a corporation in need of a cash cow, not the needs of NH for an environmentally destructive, foreign-based source of power.

Have you seen the film? It does cover exactly what you are talking about. There is footage on the devastation of dam-building in Quebec and the death of river systems. The 1970's P.M. Robert Bourassa is quoted - he talks with pride about how he feels Quebec was "conquering" nature as Hydro-Quebec ramped up its construction on dams in the northern part of the province. A wildlife biologist from Sterling College discusses the local effects of Northern Pass crossing some 26 rivers or streams in NH as well as the more global effects of Hydro Quebec's insatiable construction. It's there. As today's Union Leader report on this film notes, movie-goers on Wednesday night remarked afterwards about how well the documentary covered so many different aspects of the project. And it does so with experts, people who know: a practicing real estate broker who relates a real-life example of what is happening to property values along the line; a property owner who quotes a real-life certified appraisal by a NH appraiser of what would continue to happen if this project were ever built; an M.D. who has studied the epidemiological literature extensively; a Ph.D. public historian who talks about our responsibility to the National Forest; the wildlife biologist; someone who has seen first hand, in New London CT (Kelo case), what happens when corporations run amok over people and are given the right to control what is best for the "public good"; and more. This is what is so distressing about Ms. Timmins' slanted report. She dismisses this and substitutes the words of a company flak for what she calls the "truth." You've heard of "push polls" (which the IBEW 490 is running right now for Northern Pass)? It is advertising disguised as scientific survey. Ms. Timmins' report on this film reads like "push journalism." Where was the editorial review for this piece? In the name of journalistic ethics, Ms. Timmins should retract it. And you can get a copy of the film and see for yourself or find another screening to attend at northerntrespass.com. (By the way, copies are on their way to Quebec right now to show the film there.)

There is not just one "real topic of conversation" on this issue, there are many and all are worthy of consideration although no. pass officials have myopic tunnel vision and aren't interested in anything but the money. Their alternative to huge towers and overhead transmission lines is huge towers and overhead transmission lines, anything else is completely out of the question. Modern technology uses safe and secure underground transmission lines that people don't object to. No. pass wants to use risky horse and buggy era technology just so they can keep all the money and not have to share with the State of NH. The NIMBYS are the ones from CT [no.pass, psnh of CT, NU, etc] who want to put overhead transmission lines through some of the most scenic areas of NH [and all of New England] but they have outlawed those same overhead transmission lines in CT. If they can bury them in CT, they can bury them here. I've driven through most of New England and I haven't seen anywhere near the amount of power lines crossing the highways as I see here in NH. Maybe because we already produce twice as much power as we use. They need power in southwest CT, near NYC. The Champlain Hudson Express project originally called for two lines [completely underground and underwater] but has been reduced to one. Add the other line and problem solved. But wait, what about the mismanaged utility that's going bankrupt [again] as customers leave in droves, how do we prop them up so they can continue abusing ratepayers and polluting NH with toxic mercury - which they plan to continue doing - with or without no. pass?

I've never seen this kind of format before. Why is the no. pass rebuttal called "truth"? Why has the Monitor never given the people of NH, referred to as the "opposition", the opportunity to rebut no. pass articles on a point by point basis? This article reminds me of the photo in the Monitor of the mayor of Franklin at the State House during the hearings for HB648 when no. pass was fighting for the right to use Eminent Domain to just take whatever private property the wanted. The photo showed the mayor, surrounded by a sea of orange wearing opposition but the caption said something like, "The mayor, surrounded by supporters...." What?? He was surrounded by supporters of the bill that he was there to oppose! NH ended up winning and the mayor and no. pass were denied their land grab attempt but what about the coverage? The "TRUTH" is that the best interests of the people and state of NH would be served by burying this line by the highway where it belongs and all coverage should be fair and balanced - not overtly biased.

I've never seen this kind of format before. Why are the rebuttals called "truth"? Half-truth or deceptive run around would be more accurate. Why has the Monitor never once given the people of NH, referred to as "the opposition" the same opportunity to rebut no. pass claims on a point by point basis? Instead, they have chosen to put the best interests of the people of NH behind foreign and out of state utility profits. I remember being shocked after reading the caption under the photo of the mayor of Franklin in a Monitor photo at the State House during the Eminent Domain hearings [HB648] when no.pass was fighting for the right to just take whatever private property they wanted. The photo showed the mayor surrounded by a sea of orange wearing opposition. The caption said something like, "The mayor, surrounded by a crowd of supporters..." What? He was surrounded by people who supported the bill that he was there to oppose. Shouldn't the coverage at least be "fair and balanced"? The "truth" is that this line should be buried by the highway, safe and secure where it belongs - not strung high in the air where it creates a host of problems for NH. This was very disappointing coverage of a sold out event. The people of NH will prevail despite all the attempts to marginalize them.

the great American nation was built on high wire distribution and today is still maintained by the same high wire - how is it now creating a host of problems

Wait, wait, something is off here, Ms. Timmins. Should you not be calling statements by project proponents Murray and Casey "counter-claims," not "truth"? Your bias is showing. And, please, at least use a real M.D. or epidemiological specialist, as the film does, if you want to rebut health claims. Martin Murray has no credentials whatsoever to discuss health effects. This kind of thing does not meet the standards of your profession.

Wow, Ms. Timmins. I can only imagine what it would look like if you held Northern Pass's feet to the fire by analyzing one of their brochures the way you went after this film. Apparently you went to that theater looking for something to criticize, and invited NP defenders to join you in tearing the film apart. Too bad you didn't give the opposition the same chance to rip into the puff piece on Gary Long earlier this week. The truth is that NP is misleading the public in ways that really matter -- no real benefit to NH, industrial-scale hydro is not the green panacea they claim it to be, rates are very unlikely to go down, and most important of all, THE LINE CAN BE BURIED. That one NP whopper, that the line can't go underground all the way, outweighs all of the minor criticism you managed to scrounge up about the film.

Very few people are considering large scale hydro (or any scale hydro) as a green panacea - because a truly green panacea doesn't exist. As for rates falling, its a comparable. Quebec residents pay roughly around six and half cents for electricity, NH residents pay eight cents just for delivery... so its doubtful that the 1200 mW into the current 29,000 mW demand will, in and of itself, have a significant impact of more than a fraction of cent on the rate. That is unless you take the RPS into account. With the RPS (not in NH because we don't allow it), it would have more than a cents worth of change; which is why Connecticut made the change in its RPS. PSNH burying the line would need to involve a greater investment than value from the HQ payout. The idea of capital investment to get a greater return than you could through other means. It comes down to either PSNH will go through with the project, or it will not. All that leaves is the question of what the economic effects will be as other inexpensive production of electricity begins to fail, and how PSNH will choose to manage the new properties in its possession to return shareholder value.

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