In this April 26, 2021, file photo, heavy machinery is used to cut trees to widen an existing Central Maine Power power line corridor to make way for new utility poles near Bingham, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Central Maine Power Co. was back to work on its $1 billion hydropower corridor Wednesday, the day after Mainers gave a resounding “yes” to a referendum aimed at stopping the transmission line.

NECEC Transmission, the CMP affiliate that is building the corridor, is working on the corridor today in the most controversial new section being cleared between The Forks and the Canadian border, the existing sections of the 145-mile corridor and a section from Windsor to Wiscasset, Thorn Dickinson, president and CEO of the company, said.

The immediate question after Election Day was whether the company will continue to push ahead the corridor and what that says to Maine voters. CMP made its stance on that clear on Wednesday, inflaming corridor opponents who could escalate a legal fight with the utility over the project.

“It isn’t a surprise to me that they are working this morning,” Tom Saviello, a Wilton selectman and corridor opposition leader, said Wednesday. “That’s an insult to the people of Maine who voted overwhelmingly against the corridor last night.”

In a separate move, parent company Avangrid Inc. was quick to file a lawsuit on Wednesday challenging the citizens’ initiative and calling it “unlawful.” CMP and affiliates could also make a “vested rights” argument, saying it has been actively developing the project in good faith and should be allowed to proceed, legal experts have said.

Opponents called on CMP to stop all construction, but Saviello acknowledged it is difficult for either side to act immediately, since the legislation resulting from the referendum will take effect 30 days after Mills publicly announces the result of the ballot measure.

Work on the corridor is likely to continue for now. Dickinson said he talked to workers this morning telling them NECEC “will continue to fight and advocate for this project.” While he said during the campaign that 400 workers could lose jobs if the referendum passed, Dickinson gave no timeline on when or if that might happen on Tuesday.

Dickinson said corridor opposition ran “a very effective misinformation campaign” and said he was surprised when large fossil fuel companies began showing up at regulatory hearings just after being awarded the contract by Massachusetts.

“The fossil fuel industry is fighting these kinds of projects all across the country, and we’re gonna continue to advocate for this project on behalf of the state,” he said.

Question 1 attempts to block the corridor in several ways, including by revoking a key approval, banning transmission lines in the upper Kennebec River region and subjecting future infrastructure projects to legislative approval.

There are a range of options that bill supporters could pursue “to prevent further environmental damage from being done,” Adam Cote, a lawyer representing corridor opponents, said Tuesday.

He called the work today “a new low, even for CMP,” and said he would defend the election results. But Dickinson was adamant about pushing ahead with the project, saying it had the needed approvals and permits.

But the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is considering whether to pull its permit after a judge’s August ruling that the state had no authority to issue CMP a lease for public land comprising about a mile of the corridor in rural Somerset County. If the lease is negated, other state approvals could unravel. 

Part of the resistance to the corridor stems from CMP’s problems with customer service and management, a concern that Gov. Janet Mills, a key backer of the project, said she shares and will work with the regulatory Maine Public Utilities Commission to address.

In a Wednesday statement, she stood by her support of the corridor, saying if it is not built, “then Maine will lose a significant opportunity to advance the clean energy goals that are vital to combating climate change.”

“With last night’s vote and with litigation expected on both sides of the question, I hope that the courts, as an independent arbiter, will act in a timely manner to provide clarity and resolve the matter so that we can put this controversy to rest, one way or the other,” she said.

Lori Valigra, investigative reporter for the environment, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...