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

Last modified: 7/26/2013 2:45:09 PM
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.)


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