Power line plan could reopen debate over land use in New England

Sun file photo

THE FORKS, Maine — Tree-cutting is resuming on a $1 billion electric transmission project in western Maine after a two-month hiatus over a federally protected bat.

The New England Clean Energy Connect was able to resume construction beginning as early as Sunday on a key part of a 145-mile power line that would serve as a conduit for up to 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydropower to reach the New England power grid.

Tree-cutting was put on hold in June and July to protect the newly born young of a federally protected bat.

Northern long-eared bats are tiny — the size of a small mouse — and they live in trees instead of caves. Like most hibernating bats, their numbers have been decimated by so-called white nose syndrome, a deadly fungal disease that has killed millions of bats since it first appeared in New York in 2006.

Northern long-eared bats are listed as threatened by the federal government and endangered by the state government.

While tree-cutting will be suspended in June and July, other construction including the setting of poles continued.

The project will be fully funded by Massachusetts ratepayers to meet that state’s clean energy goals. Much of it follows existing utility corridors but the new section cutting through 53 miles of woods is the subject a referendum in November.

Supporters say the power line will have the effect of reducing energy prices across the region, in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Critics, meanwhile, say the environmental benefits are overstated and that it will destroy woodlands and harm wildlife.

The project previously received approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Maine Land Use Planning Commission and Maine Public Utilities Commission.

But groups opposed to the project have sued over a lease granted for a 1-mile section that crosses state-owned property. And a second referendum targeting the project will appear on the November ballot.

The first referendum proposal was supposed to be on the ballot in 2020 but was tossed by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on constitutional grounds.

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