BY GARRY RAYNO,
CONCORD — State regulators wanted to know why an agreement outlining procedures to resolve mitigation issues for the Northern Pass Transmission project’s effect on historic and archeological sites had not been made available until Thursday.
The Programmatic Agreement relative to Northern Pass was recently finalized by the U.S. Department of Energy. The agreement prescribes the steps necessary to complete the federal and state agency review of historic and archeological resources, including addressing any adverse effects, according to Eversource.
Several members of the SEC said the legally binding document should have been available while experts on historic preservation and archeological resources were before the committee, saying it is crucial to preserving sites and minimizing impacts from the construction and operation of the transmission project between Pittsburg and Deerfield.
Committee member Christopher Way from the Department of Business and Economic Affairs asked historic preservation expert Cherilyn Widell how her findings would be protected during construction and worker training to recognize possible impacts and was told it was outlined in the Programmatic Agreement.
Way said he would have liked to have seen the Programmatic Agreement before questioning the historic and archeological experts.
The agreement is central to the federal 106 process for the National Historic Preservation Act.
Committee chair Martin Honigberg asked Eversource how many pages in the report and was told 74. “How long does it take to read 74 pages and be able to ask good questions of witnesses?” Honigberg asked. “Many people in this room may be interested and have questions for the panel about that.”
Eversource attorney Dana Bisbee said the draft of the report has been available for some time as consulting parties were involved in the development, but noted it was not available to the committee.
Honigberg noted many people in the room were shaking their heads and Bisbee said 60 or more parties have been part of the consideration for more than a year as the plan has been drafted.
Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests attorney Elizabeth Boepple said the lack of availability is problematic not just for the agreement, but other changes developers have made in the project but not in documents available to intervenors.
She said the agreement is integral to addressing potential damage to historic resources.
Bisbee noted Widell has been on the witness stand for four days and not one question has focused on the document until now.
But Way said he does have questions about ensuring historic sites are protected and if everyone is doing what they should be to protect historic property and archeological resources.
“I would like to have the ability to review the PA and get some input and then get some questions answered,” he said.
Honigberg said the preservation experts may have to come back after the committee members have had the time to read the document and review it.
The public member of the committee, Patricia Weathersby, asked Widell and archeological consultant Victoria Bunker if they had been involved in developing the Programmatic Agreement, and they said they had not.
“I find it odd neither of you were involved in drafting the PA,” Weathersby said, “as you are the applicant’s experts. Is that how it is usually done?”
Widell said the agreements are done in many different ways. She said they are usually drafted by the federal agency as it is its responsibility to address adverse impacts and show they have complied with the National Historic Preservation Act.
She said the DOE draft was sent to the state Division of Historic Resources who wanted the state preservation council to be included in the process and other interested parties be asked to contribute.
The document was released Thursday afternoon and entered as evidence.
The $1.6 billion project, 192-mile, high voltage transmission line will adversely impact six historic properties, two cultural districts and four archeological sites, according to Eversource’s experts.
The state Division of Historic Resources believe there are several more properties that could be adversely impacted along with several other cultural and agricultural districts.
Eversource had hoped to complete all federal and state permitting for the project by the end of the year, but earlier Thursday the SEC moved its deadline to make a decision from Sept. 30 to Feb. 28, 2018.
Northern Pass issued a statement on Thursday about the delay.
“Northern Pass is disappointed in today’s decision considering this review process was already extended by nine months, from what was originally a 12-month process under recently enacted NH law.
“We remain confident in our ability to achieve a 2020 in-service date. Further, we are convinced that we have submitted the most mature project into the Massachusetts Clean Energy RFP and we continue to believe that we will be in a position to start construction in the second quarter of 2018,” the release said.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 104 sent out a news release Thursday opposing the delay.
“At a time when the Trump Administration and federal agencies are speeding up decisions and improving efficiency on the permitting of key infrastructure projects, New Hampshire is mired in a regulatory swamp,” the release said. “These delays continue to hurt the economy and kill jobs in the state.”
Eversource hopes to have the transmission line to transport Hydro-Quebec electricity to New England by the end of 2020.
The committee resumes adjudicative hearings on the project Sept. 11.
Garry Rayno can be reached at email@example.com.