Thursday, January 6, 2011

Tide may be turning against the Northern Pass

Reprint of a White Mountain News editorial with commentary

Editorial: Tide may be turning against the Northern PassPosted on 05 January 2011 by White Mt. News
by Jeff Woodburn

A few months ago, when  PSNH proposed running a huge transmission line thru the North Country, it had the trappings of a coronation — or at least — a David and Goliath style fight between a bunch of left-wing environmentalists and a huge, powerful and respected utility.  But boy have things changed. The news that long-time Executive Councilor Ray Burton has come out against the proposal is a surprise — and could mean trouble for the project.
No one in the North Country has more clout or is as astute politically  than the Bath Republican.
He’s an old-school politician — he listens to his constituents and fights to bring home the bacon to his people.  He’s been a steadfast supporter of  some unpopular development projects  over the years and most anything else that will bring jobs and money to the region.But politicans do not inspire movments, they confirm them.   A classic grassroots movement has been created — and, win or lose, a unifying set of community values has been established. 
We all know these thing don’t happen by themselves. Someone needs to stir the pot and get people thinking. It was two veteran  newspaper men — John Harrigan and Charlie Jordan — who through their words and personal credibility inspired people to unite and act. They remind us of the the power of  local newspapers to be  not only a mirror, but also a light.


Hats off to John Harrigan, Charlie and Donna Jordan, Councilor Ray Burton, and the many others who have both been and seen the light about the Northern Pass project. Bury the Northern Pass owes a great deal to the press for its initial formation. After three of us attended the November 8th "informational" meeting hosted by PSNH in Franconia, we were in shock. The sheer audacity of the plan was overwhelming and it was presented as a virtual fait accompli (a "coronation," indeed). It was almost enough to make one believe that nothing could be done about it. How does one protest a coronation? But it was not quite enough.

On the way out of the Franconia meeting, a member of the press whispered to us to look up the "Stop the Towers" page on Facebook. We found it; we saw others who were shocked too, but had shaken off that feeling of paralysis and were gearing up for action. There were only 42 fans at that point--now there are over 600--but they were there, and if they could protest, so could we.

We decided to write a letter to the editor, any editor who would listen to and print us. The letter went through four drafts as we emailed it back and forth among the three of us, one in California on business by that point. Our self-imposed deadline for submitting it was almost upon us, but the letter wasn't quite right. It lacked something; we weren't seeing the whole picture. Late on the night before the deadline we found the missing piece in an article in the Jordan's Colebrook Chronicle that contained a link to the now famous PSNH "playbook" article. There we read what insiders in the utilities industry already knew but the average layperson did not: the 1200 MW of power was not needed. PSNH's problem was how to sell it to the public. As we thought through the implications of that admission, our letter took final shape in a fifth revision that the Littleton Courier published on November 23 with 13 signatures. Bury the Northern Pass grew quickly from then on.

This anecdote is about gratitude to the free press of this country and about journalists who inspire us. It is about many other things as well, grass roots movements, North Country determination, networking with neighbors, the power of the internet to connect ordinary people and give them a chance to interrupt coronations and have their voices heard. 

We're mountain people, not people of the sea, but we know that the tide turns--and turns again. Northeast Utilities is certainly the king of the New England hill right now, but look at where it was just 10 years ago. Its stock price had collapsed; its management pled guilty to twenty five felony charges for safety violations at Millstone nuclear reactor facilities in Connecticut; it had paid a record fine of $10M; its assets were up for sale and it was in effect "seeking to disappear from the electric power scene." Where will Northeast Utilities be ten years from now?

Power companies come, and power companies go, it appears. What Jeff Woodburn calls our "unifying set of community values" is here to stay. None of us is foolish enough to believe that Northeast and Hydro-Quebec won't throw everything in our way that they can. None of us is naive enough to believe that this won't drag on for years. A lot of us are backcountry people, though, used to trekking, trudging, climbing, hunkering down in the wind, waiting for the woodstove to finally light, waiting for the dialup to finally connect, waiting for the car to finally start on -40F mornings. We are in this for the long haul.

Bury the Northern Pass is a group of concerned citizens in Grafton County and part of the No Northern Pass coalition. To join the email list, write to