The poles Central Maine Power said it is proposing for its New England Clean Energy Connect hydropower line from Canada to Lewiston. Credit: Courtesy of Central Maine Power

A $1 billion hydropower corridor continues to draw controversy as legislators who visited the first segment of the project in a remote part of Somerset County said Wednesday that the utility in charge of it cannot meet permit requirements, a claim the company denied.

The legislators said the nature and age of the forest prevents a Central Maine Power Co. affiliate from being able to meet the tapering requirements in the permit, so tree-cutting should be stopped until protections are put into place.

The New England Clean Energy Connect is one of the largest and most controversial projects in the state’s history, with many environmentalists and residents questioning its value to the state.

The four lawmakers also asked the commissioner of Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection in a letter to have the board take jurisdiction over the project. The board is part of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which issued a permit for the project, but it can enforce environmental protection laws independently.

The permit requires the tree-cutting to be tapered to preserve the natural environment and wildlife, but the lawmakers said the cutting was in a straight line and wider than allowed in some areas, and that the state’s permit requirements are impossible for the project to meet.

“It was a mission that could never be accomplished,” Rep. Scott Landry, D-Farmington, said of the permit conditions during a news conference in Johnson Mountain Township on June 24.

Thorn Dickinson, CEO and president of the NECEC project, said the company has confirmed that it is operating within the terms of the permit and will continue to work with the DEP daily to ensure it is compliant.

“The DEP are professionals with expertise in forestry practices, these politicians are not,” Dickinson said. “This is one of the most visible and heavily scrutinized projects in the state and there is no incentive or reason to vary from our permits.”

DEP spokesperson David Madore said the department will evaluate the concerns expressed in the letter and issue a statement once it completes a thorough review.

The state permit allows for the clear cut in the Upper Kennebec Region to be a maximum of 54 feet wide, with 16-foot tapering zones. The legislators, all of whom have been critical of the project, observed that at least five locations on about 10 miles of the corridor were wider than the allowable distance in those areas. They provided aerial and ground photographs of the area where CMP is working on the corridor in a  report

The legislators said they did not talk to CMP about their findings, but instead are acting to hold the state permitting department accountable. The environmental protection board’s responsibility is to oversee the environmental department and to represent the public on projects of statewide significance, Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, said.

“They [the BEP] have a chance to address CMP’s inability to meet the tapering condition in segment one,” Bennett said. “They need to stop this nonsense now and do their job.”

Other legislators said public lands were wrongfully leased for the project. Those leases have been the subject of a lawsuit against Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands, which approved the leases. The legislators said leases on the land should have had two-thirds approval by the Legislature.

Specifically, the corridor runs by two heritage fisheries, at Little Wilson Hill Pond and Wilson Hill Pond, which have native trout that haven’t been stocked.

Rep. Lori Gramlich, D-Old Orchard Beach, said she fears what will happen if the project continues as is on what she called “pristine” land.

“This is really going to have profound implications on our environment, and that impacts every single one of us,” she said. “So it’s really incumbent upon us to be mindful, pay attention and act now.”