U.S. Forest Service recommends permit to bury Northern Pass lines in White MountainsBy MICHAEL COUSINEAU
New Hampshire Union Leader
September 06. 2017 10:32AM
CONCORD — The U.S. Forest Service is recommending a special issue permit be given to Northern Pass to bury 11 miles of power line within the White Mountain National Forest.
The permit is one of three key approvals the proposed transmission project needs before it can start construction next year.
The electric transmission lines would be buried within the existing road and shoulder areas along Routes 112 and 116, according to Thomas Wagner, the forest supervisor at the White Mountain National Forest.
"I fully understand and acknowledge that there will be short-term, construction-related, impacts to natural and cultural resources on the WMNF, visitors to the area, and private lands/properties located along NH Routes 112 and 116," Wagner wrote in his "draft record of decision," a required step toward issuing a permit.
"My decision does not ignore or make light of these effects," he said. "I believe the intensity and duration of these effects is more than outweighed by the benefits associated with bringing additional hydropower to the New England grid."
The proposed $1.6 billion project, which would run through more than 30 communities, needs several state and federal approvals before it could start operating by late 2020. The proposed route runs from Pittsburg to Deerfield and includes 60 miles of buried lines. Two other key approvals would need to come from the U.S. Department of Energy and the state Site Evaluation Committee.
The energy department is recommending the project be given a presidential permit but that hasn't been finalized.
The SEC also is holding a months-long hearing on the project and its approval also is needed for Northern Pass to proceed. Last week, the committee pushed back its Sept. 30 deadline for making a decision. It is now targeting a written decision by March 31. The committee resumes its hearing Monday.
Wagner said SEC approval and granting a presidential permit will "have a significant influence on whether" the Forest Service issues its permit.
The U.S. Forest Service document also dismisses an alternative pushed by some Northern Pass critics to bury the lines along a portion of Interstate 93 through Franconia Notch and subsequently through Franconia Notch State Park.
"Franconia State Park is one of the flagship parks within the New Hampshire State Park System and also serves as one of the primary access points to key parts of the WMNF trail system," Wagner wrote. "It receives heavy public use in all four seasons.
Construction in this area could take two years to complete and result in significant disruptions to the public visiting this area during construction season.
"This route is also the gateway for heavy commercial and tourism traffic to destinations in northern New Hampshire and Vermont," Wagner said. "I expect delays in this area could more negatively impact the regional economy than delays along NH Routes 116 and 112."
The project also needs approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Murray said. Northern Pass officials praised the report.
"I think one of the most significant aspects of it is it clearly addresses and dismisses that the project could have used the I-93 corridor," said project spokesman Martin Murray.
Northern Pass previously proposed running overhead power lines in the White Mountain National Forest in an existing right-of-way with other power lines already there, Murray said.
Project critic Jack Savage with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests said more Northern Pass lines should be buried.
"I think the draft recommendation is a result of Northern Pass agreeing to bury the line along roads through the WMNF to avoid obvious adverse impacts of an overhead line," Savage said in an email. "If Northern Pass were listening, they'd take that lesson and agree to bury the line elsewhere. They might well find more acceptance by other stakeholders if they did."
The "draft record of decision" can be viewed below: