By Nancy West, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – To the dismay of some local residents, the Site Evaluation Committee unanimously approved the $84 million, 13-mile Seacoast Reliability Project from Madbury to Portsmouth on Monday.
“The moment of truth,” said Chairman Patricia Weathersby before calling for the vote.
The seven-member committee determined that developer Eversource has met the four criteria laid out in the law to grant a certificate to build the 115kv high-voltage transmission line as proposed, burying one mile beneath Little Bay.
Michael Fitzgerald said: “There is no question this project is necessary and vital to the interest of the region.” While being sympathetic with local people and the impacted towns, he said, “it is necessary for change and growth.”
Several committee members made it clear that they gave a great deal of weight to the fact that it is a reliability project, meaning it is necessary to meet the electricity needs of the growing Seacoast region.
Ann Hyland Hebert and other area residents of Durham and Newington accused the committee of being politically motivated to approve the project as Gov. Chris Sununu appointees.
“The SEC members who approved this project do not live in any of the towns directly impacted – Madbury, Durham, Newington, and Portsmouth,” Hebert said.
The SEC didn’t give equal unbiased weight to all of the testimony regarding the towns’ master plans and the views of local residents, said Hebert.
Instead, it only considered the testimony of experts hired and paid for by Eversource, she said. “Due consideration to testimony from the Counsel for the Public, Newington Planning Board Chairman Denis Hebert, and Todd Selig, Durham’s town manager, were hardly ever mentioned during the five days of deliberations,” Hebert said.
She was also critical of the weight committee members gave to Robert Varney’s testimony. Varney, a former commissioner of the Department of Environmental Services, is president of Normandeau Associates, Eversource’s paid expert.
“His testimony regarding orderly development for the Northern Pass project was determined not to be credible,” Hebert said, adding it wasn’t much different from what he testified to in the Seacoast project. She is married to Denis Hebert, Newington’s Planning Board Chairman.
During the last two weeks, the committee has deliberated on written testimony and cross-examination of witnesses that took place at 17 adjudicative sessions.
In the end, the committee voted yes Monday on all four criteria in the law; that Eversource has the technical, managerial and financial ability to build the project and that it won’t interfere with the orderly development of the region.
The committee also agreed the project will not have an adverse effect on aesthetics, historic sites, air and water quality, the natural environment and public health. The last criteria to be approved was agreed on Monday, that the project does serve the public interest.
The committee spent much of Monday afternoon deciding which conditions to place on the project.
Eversource released a statement after the vote:
“The Seacoast Reliability Project is critical to delivering the reliable power our Seacoast communities and businesses depend on, and will support continued economic growth throughout the region,” said Eversource NH President Bill Quinlan. “We are grateful to the SEC for its thorough consideration and dedication throughout the review of our project…”
Fitzgerald said he was troubled by the number of intervenors who came to him or the board who wished they could have been heard before the actual route was finalized.
They told him after the fact that there was a corridor for natural gas that would have avoided many of the town’s concerns.
“There could have been better outreach” before the ISO determination,” said Fitzgerald, the Department of Environmental Services’ designee to the committee.
He was referring – as several other committee members did – to the fact that it is a reliability project as opposed to a merchant project that would be developed for profit.
The Independent System Operator of New England (ISO-NE) has identified the Seacoast Reliability Project as the best solution to the area’s need for electricity, according to Kaitlyn Woods, spokeswoman for Eversource.
As a reliability project, the cost of the $84 million project will be paid by all electric customers in New England, with New Hampshire’s share being about 9 percent, she said.
Members made it clear they considered the electricity needs of the region, towns, businesses, and homes. Everything from street lights to water pumps and heating systems, including medical devices, require a reliable source of electricity, they said.
Eversource has said without the project, rolling blackouts could be possible.
Diane McCann of Durham said the growth and traffic in her community are already out of control.
“This left me with concerns,” McCann said of deliberations. “The governor is looking to enhance his reputation and what this has done has diminished his reputation. I just can’t imagine what’s going to happen to our bay.”
Helen Frink, co-owner of the Darius Frink Farm in Newington, which has been in her family for 200 years, was upset by the committee’s decision.
“I’m profoundly discouraged by the committee’s lack of weight given to our historic and environmental objections,” said Frink.
The farm will continue raising beef cattle and producing bailed hay, eggs and honey, she said.
But Frink said she is still concerned about having the line buried under the working farm and the 75-foot transition pole on their property in the Center Historic District of Newington.
Several people mentioned the possibility of a challenge to the state Supreme Court.
Durham Town Manager Todd Selig, who represents Durham and the University of New Hampshire as an intervenor, said he is naturally disappointed with the outcome, but noted that the SEC has spent the last two weeks deliberating on the impacts of the project on the Seacoast.
“It’s a hard job and committee members have endeavored to be fair from their individual perspectives, not unlike a jury of one’s peers,” Selig said.
“If the project is ultimately allowed to proceed by the state, we will work closely with Eversource at the local level to ensure impacts are minimized to the extent possible for a significant project of this size and scope.”
Earlier in the day, the committee revisited the question of whether impacted property and business owners will have to pay for mediation if they disagree with Eversource.
On Friday, the committee by straw vote decided that property and business owners would pay 25 percent capped at $300 with Eversource paying 75 percent of mediation. On Monday, the committee decided property and business owners wouldn’t pay anything for mediation.
Woods said Eversource has worked closely with property owners to develop comprehensive mitigation plans to address visual concerns to their property as a result of construction of the SRP.
“The process provides for an independent administrator to decide any issues that have not been resolved through Eversource’s mitigation efforts,” Woods said.
For the intervenors, the next step includes meeting with attorneys to see if they believe there is a basis to ask the SEC to reconsider its decision. Several intervenors said they will consider appealing to the state Supreme Court.
Durham’s Selig said: “While Durham/UNH and Newington opposed the project, they also negotiated memorandum of understandings with Eversource in the event the SEC approved the project. These understandings lay out commitments to Durham, UNH, and Newington during the project, including notifications and communications, protection of historical resources, disposal of materials, and how to resolve any disputes.
“If the project ultimately proceeds to construction, the residents of Durham and Newington should know that it will be a better project for our efforts — less impactful on individual property owners, numerous conditions to mitigate impacts to scenic and historic resources, and important permit conditions to protect the Great Bay Estuary in the area of the planned Little Bay crossing,” stated Selig.