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Three Northern Pass reps take questions from conservation commission

Kevin McCune, Supervisor, Environmental Affairs Licensing and Permitting for Northern Pass, outlined the process for burying electricity transmission lines during a meeting of the Easton Conservation Commission on the evening of Feb. 11. (Photo by Darin Wipperman) (click for larger version)
February 17, 2016
EASTON – One little town had big questions for Northern Pass representatives on Thursday evening. For more than two hours, residents and five members of the conservation commission made inquiries about the process that could bury hydro electric transmission lines through town along Route 116.

The proposed underground portion of Northern Pass would pass right by the Easton Town Hall, which hosted the meeting on the evening of Feb. 11.

The three Northern Pass representatives were Kevin McCune, Supervisor, Environmental Affairs Licensing and Permitting; attorney Dana Bisby; and engineer Brian Bosse.

At the start of the meeting, commission chairman Roy Stever set a collaborative tone.

"We welcome our guests from Northern Pass," he said.

Residents would be granted a chance to ask questions, Stever continued. When requesting information from Northern Pass, he added, residents were asked to be "brief, to the point, and always respectful."

Repeating a point project leaders have made throughout the region, Bisby reciprocated the interest in positive dialogue.

"We're glad to be here to answer your questions," Bisby said near the start of the meeting.

He said project proponents are "always grateful" to speak with people about Northern Pass.

Stever noted the commission's preference for use of the I-93 corridor for burying Northern Pass, rather than state highways near homes and businesses. He suggested "we could probably all go home" if the power lines were placed underground down the Interstate.

When asked about any Northern Pass discussion with the NH Department of Transportation about use of I-93, Bisby said, "We're really not prepared to talk about an alternative" to the project's requested route.

Bisby added that he was not aware of any communication between Northern Pass and DOT. Last month, he continued, Northern Pass provided detailed written testimony to the U.S. Department of Energy about why I-93 is not a good option for burying the project.

In reply, Stever said, "Conservation is about trade offs" and "looking at alternatives." He repeated the town's interest in use of the I-93 corridor by saying, "We would much rather have that route."

Then, Stever noted the town's concern about the number of abandoned power poles close to Easton's water resources. The problem took many years to remediate. Although not part of the Northern Pass project, Stever suggested the delayed response on cleaning up the poles created a credibility problem for Eversource, the partner of HydroQuebec on Northern Pass.

"That issue has been addressed," Bisby countered.

Even so, Stever replied, "It will take many years to forget about that."

Both Bosse and McCune noted how any permit the state's Site Evaluation Committee provides will cover all aspects of how Northern Pass must protect natural resources.

"We spend a lot of money on these projects," McCune said, including a wide range of training for employees and oversight to ensure permit conditions are met.

When asked about the possibility of using outside experts to monitor the construction process, Bosse said Eversource has "a very good track record" of using techniques "to make sure there are no environmental violations" during the building of a project.

In later discussion, the Northern Pass representatives said the project hopes most of the undergound lines will be buried beneath the asphalt roadways from Bethlehem and the 52 miles of underground lines to the south.

The design phase of Northern Pass has not completely determined the exact placement of the lines, either in the middle of a roadway or closer to the shoulder. The expectation, based on the evening's discussion, is that one lane of the road would be resurfaced after the burial of the lines.

The process of underground construction, from use of vaults and "horizontal directional drill," was part of the evening's discussion. Because the project would be buried close to several residences in Easton, many questions from the conservation commission and public centered on the details involved in burying the line.

Selectman and commission member Deb Stever asked whether Northern Pass would post a bond in case the construction phase impacted town property, such as roads. After McCune said he would get an answer to that question, Stever added, "You're going to have to post a bond to this town."

Tree removal concerns were included in several questions from commission member Carl Lakes.

Bosse said the impact on trees should be very minimal. The concrete vault protecting the lines would keep roots away, he suggested, and any removal of small feeder roots would likely not impact a tree.

Lakes wondered about the potential increase in frost heaves as a result of the very warm buried lines. Bosse replied that Northern Pass would work closely with DOT to avoid causing problems with the road surface.

Thermal sand, designed to quickly dissipate heat, will be part of the backfill that surrounds the transmission lines. Without rapid heat loss, the temperatures from the buried lines could damage roadways because of increased thawing.

Deb Stever was also curious about tree impacts. McCune responded that if a tree was outside of the easement that allows trimming or cutting, "We cannot go in and cut that tree down."

Bosse also said he would look into another request from Lakes: a written promise that danger from electromagnetic radiation would not be a problem from the installed lines.

Later, the legality of using the Route 116 right-of-way for constructing Northern Pass, a key question for many landowners along the proposed route of burial, came up. After the Stevers wondered whether the project had the authority to place lines down the highway, Bisby replied, "We're not here to debate that legal point with you." He suggested state law and legal rulings going back more than a century allow utilities to use highway rights-of-way for placement of project infrastructure.

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