By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH
CONCORD — Environmental and natural resource protections were improved, ignored and in some cases diminished in changes that the Northern Pass Transmission project developers recently made, according to experts hired by the Counsel for the Public.
Developer Eversource released new avoidance and minimization measures for the project over the weekend prompting the Counsel for the Public to request time to fully review the documents and respond and possibly call back the developer’s witnesses.
Eversource attorney Dana Bisbee said the documents reflect ongoing work with state and federal agencies.
Although the experts said they had little time to review Eversource’s changes, they were critical of provisions to protect and preserve bats, wild lupine and other endangered and rare plants as well as bird and mammal habitats.
In some cases, developers addressed their concerns, said Michael Lew-Smith, project director and senior botanist and ecologist with Arrowwood Environmental, LLC of Huntington, Vt. In others instances they were ignored.
He said the applicant’s environmental experts distinguish between temporary and permanent impacts.
The distinction is actually a description of construction activity and not a description of the impact on a resource, he said.
“If I run a bulldozer over lupine plants digging them up and killing them, they call that temporary because they say the plants will grow back,” Lew-Smith said. “That is not an accurate description. If you run a bulldozer over lupine and kill them, that is a permanent impact on those plants.”
The plants may grow back, he said, but that is not supported with any detailed plans, noting they are difficult to transplant with any success.
Wild lupines are essential for the survival of Karner Blue butterflies, a species that had disappeared but was reintroduced in the Concord Pine Barrens.
Karner Blue expert Michael Amaral said the lupines have some “lifestage” of the butterflies on them all year round including during the winter when the developer will do land cleaning to reduce damage to the plants.
To ideally minimize the impact on the plants and the butterflies, work should be done in the winter when there is snow and frozen ground, and timber mats are used to better protect the plants, he said.
The conditions are not spelled out in the developer’s mitigation plan, Amaral said.
Attorney Doreen Connor, representing the Counsel for the Public, asked if there is any limit on the time the timber mats can be in place.
Lew-Smith said while it is commendable Eversource has agreed to use timber mats any time of year, but if the mats are down for two months or more “they start to do more harm than good.”
Amaral noted the developers did agree to move one tower that was in the middle of a significant wild lupine patch but did not agree to change an access road location to lessen the impact.
He said the firm hired by Northern Pass surveyed the Karner Blue population in 2015 which was the lowest level in some time, and noted the population has bounced around from year to year.
Connor noted the Northern Pass biologist said the population was self-sustaining and asked Amaral if he agreed.
“No they are not self-sustaining. It’s hard to see sustainability,” Amaral said. “If your stock portfolio bounced around like that, you would not be telling your broker ‘great job.’”
Connor asked if there were any measures to protect several other rare and endangered butterfly species in the area and Jeff Parsons, senior wildlife biologist and wetland ecologist at Arrowwood, said there were not.
He said two species are rarer than the Karner Blue and only exist at the Concord site. They, too, depend on wild lupine, Parsons said, but the developer’s environmentalists did not determine what the impact on the wild lupines will be.
The company’s new avoidance and minimization measures eliminated some time constraints for construction near threatened bat populations, according to Scott Reynolds, a bat expert who teaches at St. Paul’s School.
He said the most resent bat survey eliminated potential sites of several endangered bat species although federal guidelines say they should be included.
The recent changes eliminate seasonal restrictions and eliminate any mention of blasting in areas where bats are known to roost, he said.
Connor suggested the new measures provided less protection, and Reynolds agreed and said they are much more vague.
“That leaves it up to Fish and Game to decide what to do,” Reynolds said, “and takes out a lot of the documentation.”
He said the company’s latest measures need more details on known locations of bat colonies and need to identify buffer zones around those locations.
Other concerns were raised about extremely rare species of goldenrod and orchids along the right-of-way in the Concord Pine Barrens as well as buffer zones for eagle, rapture and blue heron nests, and lynx and pine martin habitat protections.
Lew-Smith said he did not have concerns about measures relating to deer and moose for winter construction.
But they warned much of what is planned would depend on environmental monitors the developer would hire to oversee construction sites.
Parsons and the other panel members suggested the monitors would need a wide range of expertise which will be difficult to find.
During cross-examination, attorney Jeremy Walker, representing Eversource, questioned the panel’s experience with the Site Evaluation Committee process and requirements and Lew-Smith’s and Parsons’ experience working in New Hampshire.
Did you do any field work, he asked Parsons, who said he had both in the far northern section where a new transmission right-of-way will be established and along the route through the White Mountains National Forest.
Lew-Smith said he and another Arrowwood employee spent about eight days along the project route and the other two panel members touted their years of experience in the state.
Walker focused on approvals the project has already received from state agencies including the Department of Environmental Services and the Fish and Game Department.
Those agencies have approved plans that the panelists say are inadequate, Walker said, citing examples.
Do you lack confidence that the agencies will not ensure that conditions will be met, he asked, and Lew-Smith said they did not.
“We have some areas where we disagree,” Lew-Smith said. “We were tasked with doing an independent, objective review of the impacts regardless of what others may think.”
Walker continues his cross-examination Tuesday before SEC members question the panel.
The $1.6 billon, 192-mile, high-voltage transmission line would stretch from Pittsburg to Deerfield and bring 1,090 megawatts of Hydro-Quebec electricity to the New England grid.
Eversource had hoped to have all federal and state permits by the end of this year with construction to begin next year and the transmission line finished by the end of 2020.
The Site Evaluation Committee is not expected to make a final decision on the high-voltage transition line until the end of February.
If all permits are received, project officials said earlier, construction could begin in April.
Garry Rayno can be reached at email@example.com