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Northern Pass panel begins deliberations Jan. 30

New Hampshire Union Leader

December 23. 2017 4:26PM
Martin Honigberg, presiding officer for the state Site Evaluation Committee's hearing on Northern Pass, compares a photo simulation for Northern Pass with the actual view of a house in Concord during a committee bus tour in October. (MICHAEL COUSINEAU/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD - After millions of dollars, thousands of exhibits and 70 days of testimony, a state committee last week wrapped up the input phase of its review of the Northern Pass hydropower transmission project.

On Jan. 30, the seven-member Site Evaluation Committee will begin public deliberations on whether to grant a certificate required for the project to proceed.

But whether the committee - a mix of state employees and members of the public - green lights the project or sides with opponents, many expect the losing side to keep battling.

"I'd be extremely surprised if there wasn't an appeal," said Michael Iacopino, the committee's attorney, not because the committee (technically a subcommittee of the larger committee) failed to do its job properly, but "because of the passion of the parties," Iacopino said.

An appeal would begin with a request that the committee reconsider its decision, after which the appeal would shift to the state Supreme Court, Iacopino said.

The proposed $1.6 billion project, which runs through more than 30 communities, needs a handful of state and federal approvals before construction can begin. Operation is now projected to begin in late 2020. The route runs from Pittsburg to Deerfield and includes 60 miles of buried lines.

Northern Pass spokesman Martin Murray expects construction to start as early as April if the committee grants the certificate.

"We don't expect an appeals process would delay construction of the project," Murray said. "We would have to abide by any legal ruling, but unless there's some legal obstacle, we would begin on schedule."

The committee had set a deadline of December 2016 for making a decision, then extended it to Sept. 30, 2017, before extending it yet again. It now has a late March deadline for a issuing a written decision with a verbal decision expected by late February.

The committee has scheduled 12 days of public deliberations in January and February, but could render a decision before the final day, Feb. 23.

Eversource, which is the parent company of Northern Pass Transmission, already has spent $249 million on the project as of Sept. 30, including about $40 million in land acquisition.

Eversource is funding the construction through borrowing and stockholder equity.

Northern Pass also pays for much of the cost of the hearings, as well as for the work of what's termed the "counsel for the public."

"The counsel shall represent the public in seeking to protect the quality of the environment and in seeking to assure an adequate supply of energy," according to state law.

Members of the state Site Evaluation Committee, intervenors and others, during a bus tour in October, view a stretch of utility right-of-way in Concord where the Northern Pass transmission project would run. (MICHAEL COUSINEAU/UNION LEADER)

"To date, expenses for outside consultants are approximately $4 million," said Assistant Attorney General Christopher Aslin, who also serves as counsel for the public.

"Of that, approximately $1.7 million is for legal services (including expenses) and $2.3 million for expert services," said Aslin, who also expects the losing side to appeal.

According to RSA 162-H:16, the committee in order to issue a certificate must find that Northern Pass has adequate financial, technical and managerial capability to assure construction and operation.

The site and facility must not unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region; must not have an "unreasonable adverse effect" on aesthetics, historic sites, air and water quality, the natural environment, public health and safety; and must "serve the public interest."

Project opponent Jack Savage from the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests said he believes the project doesn't satisfy those criteria.

Officials in some towns, for example, said the project would be "specifically prohibited" and in direct opposition to their master plans, which might be considered interfering with orderly development, Savage said.

Meanwhile, others, including union workers, look forward to thousands of construction jobs that are promised.

The committee "should have acted by now," said Brian Murphy, business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 104. "I think they've really listed to everybody's opinion."

Northern Pass foe Mary Lee, an abutter and intervenor from Northfield, said the hearings served a valuable purpose. 

"I give a lot of credit to the process for those hearings because people have to be heard," Lee said.

But she didn't want to hazard a guess at the outcome.

"Unfortunately, I left my crystal ball home," Lee said.

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