A crew of workers work on a powerline.
Cianbro employees guide the top of the first pole of the NECEC hydropower transmission corridor onto its base in this Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The developers of a $1 billion hydropower corridor running from the Canadian border through western Maine will be able to keep access to a key permit if they prevail in two court challenges.

The permit over public lands was first granted by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to the New England Clean Energy Connect project but suspended by that organization last November. But the Board of Environmental Protection, tasked with enforcing laws, on Thursday denied appeals to the permit after two days of testimony.

A judge last year ruled the state had no authority to grant leases on public land in rural Somerset County. The area in question covers a little less than one mile of the proposed 145-mile corridor, which is being led by Central Maine Power Co. and Hydro-Quebec.

Today’s ruling carried two caveats. One is that the amount of conservation land to be committed for the project needed to be increased from 42,000 acres to 50,000 acres.  The second involves an ongoing court case challenging a referendum that stopped construction of the corridor.

If Maine’s high court ultimately rules the referendum unconstitutional, then construction would have to resume within two years for the permit to remain valid.

The board’s decision does nothing to immediately revive the project, which has been paused since last November after the state suspended the site permit at the heart of this week’s long-delayed hearing on an appeal dating back to 2020. The fate of the project still rests on the high court’s decisions on cases around the constitutionality of the vote and public land leases.

The board also said there was no need for a public hearing on the permit. Opponents to the corridor responded quickly, saying they were disappointed in that decision.

Former state Sen. Tom Saviello, a leader of the anti-corridor campaign, said the board “did not look at what has actually happened” in the two years after the permit was issued and “ignored the new laws.”

NECEC Transmission LLC, which is building the corridor, issued a statement saying it is pleased that the decision stands and will review proposed conditions.