Hydro claims draw in senators

Last modified: 2/24/2011 12:00:00 AM
Both U.S. senators from New Hampshire yesterday asked the federal Department of Energy to investigate claims that it created a conflict of interest in the permitting process for the Northern Pass project.

The firm the department hired to analyze the environmental impact of the project, including plans to build 180 miles of power lines through New Hampshire from Canada, already is working for Northern Pass to help it secure federal and state permits.

The letters - sent by Republican Kelly Ayotte and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen - join a chorus of formal complaints submitted to the department by opponents of the project. As part of its response defending the firm's objectivity, the Northern Pass company, too, has asked DOE to rule on the firm's appropriateness.

DOE, however, has been quiet on the issue - it has not responded to the complaints of objectors, the request of the applicant or the senators. A spokeswoman for the department yesterday referred the Monitor to a general statement issued last week but said she could not answer specific questions about the project.

Northern Pass wants to build high-voltage direct current transmission lines capable of carrying 1,200 megawatts of hydroelectricity from Canada to a converter station in Franklin and on to Deerfield to enter the New England power grid. The company was created by Connecticut-based Northeast Utilities and Boston-based power company NSTAR, which are being paid by Hydro-Quebec - a company owned by the province of Quebec - to plan, build and obtain permits for the $1.1 billion project.

In her letter to DOE Secretary Steven Chu, Ayotte requested he 'ensure the necessary steps are taken to resolve public concern that the Department will be using the services of a vendor who has a conflict of interest during the review of the Northern Pass application' and to analyze and publicly address claims that the 'vendor has a business relationship with one of the companies associated with the Northern Pass which might influence its work on behalf of the Department.'

Earlier this month, about a dozen opponents to the project filed objections, insisting DOE - the agency responsible for evaluating the environmental impact of power projects that would cross international borders - should not have hired Normandeau Associates. The Bedford-based environmental consulting firm was hired by Northern Pass, the company heading the project, to assist it in obtaining the federal permit by providing information to DOE and other agencies and to help win state approval, which would occur later.

Some letters also cited Normandeau's past history of contracts with Public Service of New Hampshire and its parent company Northeast Utilities, which owns 75 percent of Northern Pass LLC.

Last week, an attorney for Northern Pass issued a response to the department and said that because Normandeau has no promise of future work with Northern Pass, the arrangement is legal under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, or NEPA. The law requires international power projects to submit environmental impact statements before they can move forward with a federal permit.

A DOE spokeswoman last week could not answer questions about the law or how it's implemented by the department. Officials in the department's NEPA office told the Monitor they could not speak to the media.

In her letter to Chu, Shaheen said the law clearly established that federal agencies should avoid conflicts of interest when it comes to the preparation of environmental impact statements. Shaheen said that even though Normandeau is 'widely respected . . . even the perception of a conflict is problematic given the significance of this project.'

Shaheen explained in the letter that she was 'deeply troubled' that DOE 'selected a firm to do an objective assessment while it is also doing work for the project applicant,' adding that Normandeau is being paid by Northern Pass to help the company obtain the federal permit.

The firm also was hired to 'provide expert testimony in support for the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee (SEC) permitting process as well as to participate in public outreach meetings, in support of the project in the (site evaluation) process,' Shaheen said in the letter.

Normandeau did not return phone calls yesterday seeking comment about its ability to provide objective data to DOE. When contacted by the Monitor last week, spokeswoman Elizabeth Evarts said all questions should be directed to Northern Pass.

Shaheen ended by requesting an explanation of how DOE decided to hire Normandeau and how it is consistent with the laws that govern the permitting process. She asked for an update on the objectors' request that a new contractor be selected.

Neither the Appalachian Mountain Club nor the Conservation Law Foundation, two environmental advocacy groups that filed an objection with the department two weeks ago, has heard from DOE. An official with Northeast Utilities confirmed Northern Pass has yet to hear back about its Feb. 16 request for a ruling.

'The arguments have been made, and I would expect the Department of Energy to make an affirmative decision,' said Tom Irwin, director of the Conservation Law Foundation's New Hampshire branch.

'It's common sense here that there is a conflict. The NEPA regulations do prohibit this sort of arrangement,' Irwin said, adding that he is glad the senators 'recognize the impact that this could have on the public's view of the process and the legitimacy of the process.'

The issue threatens to erode the public's right to a fair and objective analysis of the project, said Kenneth Kimball, director of research for the Appalachian Mountain Club. If DOE doesn't act to correct the situation, he added, the refusal could reduce people's faith in government as a whole.

Neither Ayotte nor Shaheen has publicly announced support or opposition to the project, according to their spokespeople. Rather, they were both responding to concerns voiced by their constituents about the objectivity and transparency of the federal permitting process.

(Tara Ballenger can be reached at 369-3306 or tballenger@cmonitor.com.)

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