The lattice towers Central Maine Power said it is proposing for its New England Clean Energy Connect hydropower line from Canada to Lewiston. This image, looking northwest from Wilson Hill Road in West Forks Plantation toward the proposed transmission line, also contains a photosimulation of five years of vegetation growth that is 10 feet or less in height. Credit: Courtesy of Central Maine Power

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has asked for more information and a detailed analysis of location alternatives to Central Maine Power’s proposed hydropower corridor through western Maine that would have less impact on aquatic ecosystems.

In an April 25 letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA said it did not have time to read all of the details of the proposed New England Clean Energy Connect project and its environmental impact. It asked that documents in multiple locations be consolidated to make them easier to find and read.

The letter from Beth Alafat, acting chief of the EPA’s Wetlands Protection Unit, to Robert Desista, acting chief of the Army Corps of Engineers’ regulatory division, was in response to an Army Corps request for comments on a CMP permit application.

CMP applied to the Army Corps in March for a permit to place temporary and permanent fill in numerous waterways and wetlands between Beattie Township at the Maine-Quebec border and Lewiston. In return, CMP is offering a $3 million contribution to the Maine Natural Resource Mitigation Fund.

The EPA said that CMP has made changes to the NECEC project since the permit request was first made, and asked that the permit request be updated and that an additional public comment period be allowed.

Alafat said that as proposed, the project would cause direct and secondary impacts to many wetlands, streams and vernal ponds. It would fill 4.9 acres of wetlands and cause impacts to aquatic resources, mostly from vegetation clearing in forested wetlands, and the removal of trees next to streams and vernal pools.

“The transmission line would clear 1,800 acres … and cross more than 200 rivers, streams and brooks, removing over 11 linear miles if riparian vegetation adjacent to these aquatic resources,” she wrote. “The project would impact hundreds of acres of wetlands, including 242 vernal pools, mostly through secondary impacts.”

She said it is important to conduct a complete alternatives analysis with the goal of avoiding and minimizing the project’s effects. Options would be alternative border crossing and line route locations as well as alternatives to aerial installations.

Kirsten Puryear, an ecologist with the Maine Natural Resources Program, also wrote a letter comment to Jay Clement, a senior project manager with the Army Corps, expressing concern about changes to the project since March.

Her program has had ongoing discussions with CMP and accepts most of the measures in the CMP Compensation Plan dated Jan. 30, 2019, that would involve compensation and minimizing effects on rare and special botanical features in the proposed corridor.

“In late March the applicant introduced two alternative compensation options, which are currently under review,” she said.

These involve the Small Whorled Pogonia, a terrestrial orchid that is listed on the federal threatened species list, and two critically imperiled Jack Pine Forest locations.

“It is a normal part of the process for relevant government agencies to provide their views to one another during a comment period,” Thorn Dickinson, vice president for CMP’s parent company Avangrid, said via email. “The NECEC project remains on track and we believe the clear benefits of the project to generate jobs, tax revenue and lower electric rates and CO2 emissions will be determined by all agencies to be good for Maine.”

The NECEC project, which received a key permit from the Maine Public Utilities Commission on April 11, still needs permits and approvals from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, the Army Corps and other regulators.

The LUPC and DEP held five days of hearings on the project during the first week of April. They plan to wrap up the hearings with a final day of talks May 9.

The DEP has said it will make its decision in October or November.

Clement said the Army Corps will make its decision on the permit after state regulators complete their deliberations and make their respective decisions.

“There are a number of bullet points we have to check off before we make our decision,” he said. “The state must conclude their processes before we do.”

He said he received multiple hundreds of comments.

“The concerns and support for the project mirrored the public testimony at the DEP and LUPC hearings,” he said.

“We’ve not made a decision about reopening the comment period,” he said. “We typically do not do that, but it is not out of the realm of possibility. It we need to reopen it, we’ll do so.”

Clement said the EPA is one of the commenting agencies in the Army Corps’ review process. Others include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Orland office, which will consider the project’s effect related to the Federal Endangered Species Act. Other reviews will examine historic properties with the project.

Clement, who is based in Augusta, will review the comments and input from other agencies and then make an initial determination that he will forward to the Army Corps’ Massachusetts office. That office will make the final decision on whether to issue the permit to CMP.

The Department of Energy also needs to authorize the border crossing for the project between Maine and Canada. If it approves the crossing, it will issue a Presidential Permit.