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Up to 145 more witnesses for Northern Pass hearings

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 16. 2017 12:29AM

CONCORD — A state committee considering Northern Pass should schedule “a substantial number of additional hearing days” to accommodate up to 145 more witnesses that likely would extend beyond its Sept. 30 decision deadline, the committee’s attorney recommended Tuesday.

The Grafton County Commissioners, meanwhile, want the hearings stopped until the project’s plans are deemed accurate.

And a Northern Pass spokesman told the Union Leader that the project will shift the underground route in several places after the state Department of Transportation questioned the route going near two cemeteries — in Woodstock and Thornton — as well as a World War II monument in Thornton.

The DOT process of evaluating plans “demonstrates the thorough review Northern Pass must undergo, and as a result, some changes will be made to Northern Pass designs and plans within the DOT right-of-way, which the project had anticipated,” spokesman Kaitlyn Woods said in an email.

As far as the schedule, the state Site Evaluation Committee has 15 hearing days set for between Aug. 29 and Sept. 29, but a report released Tuesday showed it needs more than 45 days to complete questioning witnesses.

Michael Iacopino, the committee’s counsel, recommended the committee “schedule a substantial number of additional hearing days in order to accommodate the estimated time for examinations.”

The committee has set a Sept. 30 deadline for ruling on the project.

The proposed $1.6 billion project, which would run through more than 30 communities, needs several state and federal approvals before it can start operating by late 2020. Project officials hope to garner all necessary approvals by the end of this year. The route runs from Pittsburg to Deerfield and includes 60 miles of buried lines.

The SEC hearing involves more than 20 parties, including attorneys representing environmental groups and municipalities within the proposed route — each with the opportunity to cross-examine one another’s witnesses.

Last week, Iacopino asked the parties how much time they would need to question various witnesses. His report calculated about 55 hours are required to cross-examine the remaining witnesses put forth by Northern Pass. That doesn’t include questions from committee members or redirect from Northern Pass attorneys.

Then another 39 days are estimated to be needed to question up to 140-plus more witnesses.

The committee rejected a suggestion by Northern Pass for more summer dates and longer hours.

Woods said more than half of the parties’ estimated time is so-called “friendly cross-examination” among like-minded parties, which Iacopino said wouldn’t be tolerated. She said Northern Pass attorneys plan to file paperwork on the issue this week.

The Grafton County Commissioners are seeking a halt to the hearings, pointing to documents from the state transportation department that questioned the submitted Northern Pass plans.

The commissioners want the committee to “suspend the administrative hearing until the SEC can obtain assurances from the NH Department of Transportation that the plans are accurate and can be relied upon,” wrote Grafton County Attorney Lara Joan Saffo.

Project critic Jack Savage with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, said “the Northern Pass application contained a lot of holes” that remain unfilled.

“Northern Pass is still playing catch-up and that’s what Grafton County is complaining about,” Savage said.

Meanwhile, state transportation documents cited a World War II honor roll monument and flagpole on Route 3 in Thornton. The DOT urged the project to consider moving the underground section to the other side of the street to avoid the monument and other nearby residential properties.

Another DOT document said project officials needed to address the route being immediately adjacent to Woodstock Cemetery and within 25 feet of a Thornton cemetery.

DOT, citing state law, said new construction, excavation or building in the area of a known burial site can’t occur unless complying with local zoning regulations. If there aren’t any such regulations, no new construction, excavation or building — unless needed to build an essential service — shall be conducted within 25 feet of a known burial site or within 25 feet of the boundaries of an established burial ground or cemetery.

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