EPA chief wants more of Northern Pass underground
October 01. 2017 12:06AM
CONCORD - A federal environmental official urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take a look at burying 32 additional miles of the proposed Northern Pass project that she said "appears practicable."
But a Northern Pass spokesman said Friday that the Environmental Protection Agency submitted a similar letter last year and that Northern Pass officials received assurances from the Army Corps that the current letter would not affect its decision on whether to grant a required wetlands permit.
Jacqueline LeClair, chief of the EPA wetlands protection bureau, said burying 32 more miles in addition to 60 miles already proposed for underground would be less damaging to wetlands and aquatic areas than the current 192-mile route.
"Further work to determine the practicability of the hybrid alternative is clearly warranted to determine its status in the mix of practicable alternatives going forward," LeClair wrote.
She said the hybrid alternative, which would bury more lines in the route's northern section, would cost an estimated $130 million more than the Northern Pass route, writing it represents "a small portion of the overall project cost."
The proposed $1.6 billion project, which runs through more than 30 communities, needs several state and federal approvals before it can start operating by late 2020. The route runs from Pittsburg to Deerfield. The Site Evaluation Committee said it hopes to issue a verbal decision by late February and a written one by late March.
Project spokesman Martin Murray said the U.S. Department of Energy last month issued the project a final environmental impact statement, calling the Northern Pass route the "preferred alternative."
Murray said the EPA letter "contains no new information."
Meanwhile, Northern Pass expert Nathan Scott, who designed the underground route, told the Site Evaluation Committee on Friday that sections of the route were designed counter to the utility accommodation manual used by the state Department of Transportation.
Northern Pass officials have submitted more than 100 requests to the DOT to make exceptions to the manual, many of them related to using part of the road to bury lines.
The DOT has halted making decisions on those requests until updated survey work is submitted in the coming months, according to Samuel Johnson, Northern Pass's lead project manager.
Two attorneys asked project officials about the DOT rejecting requests due to incomplete or inaccurate information. The DOT used the phrase "lowest level of accuracy" regarding one request.
"Why would Northern Pass provide information with the lowest level of accuracy?" asked attorney Amy Manzelli, representing the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
"It would appear to be an error," Johnson said.
He said project officials are working to update maps showing DOT rights of way.
"Clearly, there were some errors." Johnson said.
Another attorney, Thomas Pappas, pointed out that the DOT rejected a construction area on part of a Campton road that the DOT believed would block a gas station and a road leading to a mobile home park.
Johnson said some exception requests, if granted, would speed up construction and create fewer disruptions for the public.