FILE - Maine Hydropower Transmission

Heavy machinery is used to clear an existing Central Maine Power electricity corridor that has been widened to make way for new utility poles, April 26, 2021, near Bingham, Maine. Content Exchange

(The Center Square) – Construction of a 145-mile hydropower line through Maine has been temporarily halted while a legal challenge and review of the project plays out in court.

The $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) project, which is overseen by Central Maine Power Co. seeks to import up to 1,200 megawatts of electricity from Hydro-Québec’s dams.

But the companies put the work on hold beginning Friday amid a legal challenge over the results of a Nov. 2 referendum and review of the project's lease by state environmental officials. 

The move follows a request from Gov. Janet Mills for the companies to cease work on the project "in deference" to its rejection by voters in the Nov. 2 elections. 

"While you are not legally obligated to do so at this point, immediately halting construction in a voluntary manner will send a clear message to the people of Maine that you respect their will," Mills wrote in a letter to the companies. "I strongly urge you to do so.”

In the Nov. 2 elections, Maine voters approved Question 1, which bans construction of “high-impact electric transmission lines” in the Upper Kennebec Region and requires a two-thirds vote by the state Legislature for large transmission projects on public land. The measure was approved by 59%, according to preliminary results.

Avangrid, CMP’s corporate parent, filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the results of the referendum, arguing that it violates laws on contracts by targeting a project that was approved. 

The legal challenge also seeks an injunction to block enforcement of the new law and allow construction to proceed while the case is being considered.

Meanwhile, state regulators are revisiting their approval of a lease for the project following a court ruling earlier this year. 

In August, a state Superior Court judge ruled that the state Bureau of Parks and Lands had no legal authority to sign the 2020 lease with the energy companies to build a section of the transmission line along 33-acres of state-owned land.

On Monday, the state Department of Environmental Protection heard testimony from supporters and opponents of the project as part of a review of the project's lease approval.  

Thorn Dickinson, president and CEO of NECEC Transmission, said the referendum should have no impact on the hydropower project because it had previously been approved.

"Retroactive application of the initiative on the project is unconstitutional and unlawful," Dickinson said during Monday's hearing.  

But opponents said the state should respect the will of voters and shut the project down completely. 

"The voices of Mainers have finally spoken and said, 'Enough is enough. Shut it down,'" Elizabeth Boepple, an attorney with Murray, Plumb & Murray law firm, said in testimony. 

Backers of the project say it will create jobs, help green the regional power grid, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are contributing to climate change.

Opponents say the project would carve through scenic swaths of forest in the North Maine Woods and lead to a loss of jobs and recreational tourism.

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