Sunday, September 30, 2012

Not So Fast, Northern Pass

Not So Fast, Northern Pass

What the September 23rd Easton Meeting Teaches Us

When Northern Pass developers announced on September 19th, nearly four years into the project, that V-string design could allow them to construct 85’ steel lattice HVDC towers in the White Mountain National Forest rather than 100’-135’ towers, REAL asked, what changed? Why this sudden engineering epiphany in Hartford and Montreal?

Now that the air has cleared of the developers’ press buzz over the V-string towers, BNP says, not so fast, Northern Pass. In the first full scale revision of the project website’s “Communities” pages that the developers have just completed under the guise of incorporating the V-string announcement, critical information has disappeared. All proposed tower heights in individual communities have been removed.

Proposed HVDC towns. For each of the thirteen towns below Groveton that lie outside the WMNF and for which Northern Pass has proposed HVDC towers – Bethlehem, Bristol, Campton, Dalton, Franklin, Hill, Holderness, Lancaster, New Hampton, Northumberland, Sugar Hill, Thornton, Whitefield – the developers have removed specific tower heights and substituted the following notice:

“The design of The Northern Pass project continues to be refined as new engineering data is gathered. The project recently announced a proposed design that will lead to reduced structure heights in the White Mountain National Forest. As a result, the Northern Pass team is evaluating whether this design can be applied to the remainder of the DC section of the line. We expect our final proposed structure heights to be announced in the near future.”

Given that the developers have now stretched out a request to the DOE for a 60-day extension into eighteen months and continue to delay their announcement of a “new Coos route” to the point that Wall Street has grown skeptical, the “near future” is not likely to be any time soon. And do not assume that tower heights in non-WMNF towns could be significantly lower. Other than to play as a strategic mitigation card later on, why would Northern Pass withhold such news four years into project planning?

Proposed HVAC towns. For the seven towns south of Franklin proposed for a new HVAC line – Northfield, Canterbury, Concord, Pembroke, Chichester, Allenstown, Deerfield -- the developers have also removed specific tower heights and substituted the following statement in their recent website revision:

“The design of the Northern Pass project continues to be refined as new engineering data is gathered. Northern Pass has determined that the project can be built within the existing Right-of-Way with no requirements for expansion. We expect our final proposed structure heights to be announced in the near future.”

Note what is missing in this statement: Northern Pass makes no mention of the possibility of reduced tower heights from Franklin south. Indeed, without the expansion of the ROW that the developers had planned upon with the benefit of eminent domain, tower heights will almost certainly have to be higher than those previously proposed.

Under cover of the V-string news, the newly revised “Communities” pages on the Northern Pass website have taken all previous proposed tower height information for 140 miles of the project off the table. This comes on top of a project that has taken required alternative routes and a large chunk of the preferred route out of consideration; Northern Pass remains “headless” for some 40-60 miles in northern Coos County. Northern Pass must be the only major infrastructure project in history to offer the public less and less required data as time goes on. Northern Pass’s disrespect for New Hampshire apparently knows no limits.

The yawning information void surrounding Northern Pass has been called out by the Appalachian Mountain Club; it deprives the public of the fair chance to comment upon the project now, during the ongoing scoping period, AMC argues. In lieu of responsible action by the developers to inform the public, the AMC has made a vital contribution by offering the first credible figures on the visual impact of Northern Pass’s proposed towers. Fittingly, the AMC previewed these figures in a public venue open to all, the Easton meeting of September 23, and later released them via conventional news outlets.

The form in which the AMC offers its findings is equally important. While each community deserves and should demand to know what the developers propose within its boundaries, just as each landowner with a ROW is entitled to know such information now (four years in, it has to have been calculated), the project’s sole emphasis on community-based information encourages the “my backyard” myopia that it consistently decries. This narrow view distracts the public from focusing on the cumulative impact of the project upon the state. Emphasis on tower heights out of all context further deprives the public of any meaningful form of understanding visual impact.

The AMC study fills these voids by conservatively assuming a 90’ tower, accepting in good faith the developers’ questionable assertion that the number of towers would not increase, and projecting the real-time visual effects of the project upon New Hampshire. It calculates that for just over one half of the project, the known 120 miles of a probable 200 mile route through New Hampshire, approximately 95,000 acres, from Lancaster to Deerfield, would be visually impacted. Concord would be as hard hit as the state’s scenic heartland to the north.

Over 120 years ago, the AMC evolved out of a dedicated group of biologists and botanists, who first studied the flora and fauna of the White Mountains. These scientists educated the world about the environment of the alpine areas in New Hampshire, and their pioneering efforts led to the conservation and wise use of these special places. Several unique species were preserved as a result, to mention only one obvious public service of the AMC. Today, the AMC continues to fulfill its broad educational mission by informing the public about the effects of Northern Pass.

The AMC’s study says to New Hampshire: take the large view, not the tunnel vision that the developers encourage you to adopt. It is inexcusable that community-specific information, the essential data building blocks, has been removed from the project website, but we must see beyond individual communities or even our own backyards to an encompassing view of what Northern Pass will do to New Hampshire as a whole. 95,000 acres of visual impact . . . and counting.

On September 23rd in Easton, Rebecca Weeks More asked us to take the long view of the White Mountain National Forest. From 1911 on, it was assembled slowly and with painstaking effort for the best public use and should not be subjected summarily to the profit-driven whims of a particular private developer in 2012. And Kenneth Kimball asked us to consider the effects of the project through the wide-angle lens of total visual impact on New Hampshire. Together, Dr. More and Dr. Kimball direct our vision to what the developers would hide from New Hampshire's sight.

The text of More's talk is available here. Audio and written transcripts of other Easton speakers provided courtesy of Brian Tilton are here. The AMC's visual impact assessment is here.