Maine Audubon Comments on the Proposed NECEC Transmission Line

This week we’ve been posting a blog series on the potential impacts of the proposed New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) transmission line. If approved, the project would carve a 150-foot corridor through the Maine North Woods between the Maine / Canada border and The Forks.

Maine Audubon and others have been critical of NECEC and the proposed mitigation plans developed by Central Maine Power (CMP). Throughout the proposal process our staff has met with CMP staff to discuss our concerns and recommend ways the transmission line could avoid, minimize and–once impacts have been avoided and minimized to the greatest extent possible–compensate for its projected impacts.

Today we are submitting our formal comments on the proposal to the Department of Environmental Protection, which is holding hearings on the transmission line this week. You can add your voice, too, by clicking here to contact the DEP. Our comments are below.


Jim Beyer
Maine Department of Environmental Protection
17 State House Station
Augusta, Maine 04333

April 4, 2019

Re: Central Maine Powers New England Clean Energy Connect Transmission Proposal, DEP Application L-27625-26-A-N

Dear Mr. Beyer:

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments on the proposed Central Maine Power (CMP, Applicant) New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) transmission corridor on behalf of Maine Audubon and our 30,000 members and supporters. Maine Audubon has long been a staunch supporter of renewable energy projects, believing that Maine and the nation must always look for opportunities to reduce our collective reliance on fossil fuels. At the same time, we must ensure those projects are sited and implemented responsibly to avoid and minimize environmental impacts, and that truly unavoidable impacts are adequately compensated for.

Maine Audubon feels strongly that, as proposed, the Applicant has not adequately avoided, minimized, and compensated for NECEC’s impacts to wildlife and wildlife habitat. We recognize and applaud progress that has been made since the Applicant submitted the project for review. For example, after consultation with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife the Applicant updated their Compensation Plan to include larger buffers with higher vegetation around streams where endangered species are present. This indicates to us that it is practicable for the Applicant to build and manage the project in a manner that is sensitive to wildlife. We recommend that the Applicant apply similar practices in more areas within the corridor–for example, to facilitate movement across the corridor by area-sensitive and wide-ranging wildlife species.

In addition to taking steps to minimize direct impacts to wildlife and wildlife habitat, we believe that the Applicant must compensate for cumulative impacts and impacts associated with habitat fragmentation, both of which are considerable in the proposed project. Our comments include specific compensation recommendations, as well as recommendations to avoid and minimize both direct and cumulative impacts (such as fragmentation) to wildlife and wildlife habitat.

Whats at Stake

NECEC, as proposed, would negatively affect wildlife through direct habitat loss, habitat alteration, and habitat degradation, and by dissecting large, undeveloped and highly connected forest ecosystems and waterways. The project would require a 150-foot-wide, 53-mile-long clearing from the Maine-Canada border to The Forks, as well as additional clearing along an existing transmission corridor. Linear projects like transmission corridors bisect the landscape, deterring the movement of certain animals across entire regions.

The “North Woods” region of Maine, through which NECEC would pass, is the core of one of the world’s last remaining temperate mixed broadleaf forests and the largest connected forest in the eastern United States. The North Woods allows for the movement of wildlife throughout the Northeast, becoming more important over time as a key pathway for plants and animals to move as the climate changes. Western Maine, where the first 53-miles of the corridor would require entirely new clearing, is of particular importance, as it has been identified as a globally significant Breeding Bird Area; an internationally significant pathway for wildlife between New Hampshire, Maine, Quebec, and New Brunswick; and a resilient landscape that will maintain a diversity of plants and animals even in the face of a changing climate.

A growing body of research demonstrates the negative impacts of habitat fragmentation, ranging from “edge effects” (caused by sharp transitions from one habitat to another), to the spread of invasive species, to changes in species composition and behavior over time from reduced habitat patch sizes.[1]  Forest fragmentation is of particular concern for wildlife species that require mature, closed-canopy forest cover, such as the American marten and many interior forest nesting birds. Several bird species that require interior forest, such as the wood thrush, Canada warbler, black throated blue warbler, and Blackburnian warbler, have been listed as Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the Maine State Wildlife Action Plan due to regional declines in populations, the importance of Maine in the species’ overall breeding range, or both.[2]

This project, if approved, will permanently and substantially alter this landscape and its ability to sustain a diversity of species and numbers of individuals over time. Any approved permit must include conditions that require the Applicant to take adequate steps to both minimize and compensate for direct impacts, cumulative impacts, and larger-scale impacts. The Applicant has repeatedly voiced their commitment to creating an environmentally-sensitive project–

one that sets the standard for a well-sited and well-managed utility project. In our minds, that requires the Applicant to go beyond meeting regulatory requirements, to showcasing how they can substantially reduce both short-term and long-term environmental impacts. As proposed, the project falls far short of meeting this marker.

Recommendations for Avoiding and Minimizing Direct Habitat Impacts

            As noted earlier, we appreciate that the permit applications have evolved over time. For example, after consultation with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife the Applicant updated their Compensation Plan to include larger buffers with higher vegetation around streams where endangered species are present. However, we believe that the Compensation Plan dated January 30, 2019 and the “NECEC Response to MDEP Compensation Review Comments” dated January 30, 2019 only address the Applicant’s most basic statutory obligations. This project, should be it permitted, would be precedent setting and could be the first of many large-scale renewable energy projects in Maine. As such, we implore the Department to include conditions that more fully avoid and minimize the project’s impacts. Specifically:

  1. Avoid additional habitat impacts by burying the line and/or co-locating the corridor with the nearby Spencer Road. Many of the impacts to wetlands, streams, wildlife, and habitat could be substantially reduced or even eliminated by burying the line along the entirety of “Segment 1” or at least by burying sections of the line and/or co-locating it with existing roads such as the Spencer Road. Similar projects proposed to bring Hydro-Quebec electricity through Vermont and New Hampshire included burying the line as a primary part of their proposals. See below for more on this. If the line is built above-ground, impacts could be minimized by co-locating with existing roads, particularly the Spencer Road, which would move the line further away from high value habitats and conserved lands.
  1. Increase the vegetative buffer to 100′ for all streams. Many of the streams within the proposed corridor, particularly in western Maine, are important for brook trout and other species that depend on clean, cold water. One of the primary reasons these streams are still high value habitat for these fish and other wildlife is because of limits placed on the amount of development and/or active timber harvesting that can take place adjacent to these streams. Forested shoreland habitat provides shade to keep the water cool, reduces runoff and pollution from upland areas, and over time provides dead trees and branches that fall into the streams to create resting, feeding, and cold water refugia areas important to brook trout, the insects they feed on, and many other aquatic and semi-aquatic species. These vegetative buffers are so important, that we recommend a minimum 100′ vegetated buffer on both sides of all streams, not only perennial streams with known brook trout populations. Streams that don’t have brook trout typically feed into streams with brook trout, and poor water quality and high temperatures in these feeder streams can adversely affect those other streams.
  1. Do not allow refueling near wetlands. When fuel is being transferred from one tank or vehicle to another, there will inevitably be some spillage or spills. We recommend that the Department require that refueling be limited to at least 250′ to reduce the risk of a large spill reaching a protected resource.

Recommendations for Compensating for Direct Habitat Impacts

  1. Increase vernal pool compensation rate to at least 100% of the 8:1 Significant Wildlife Habitat ratio. Sixty-two significant vernal pools and another 49 high value pools, 122 medium value pools, and 71 low value pools as defined by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be impacted along the length of the proposed corridor. According to state regulatory requirements, compensation for significant vernal pools is only required when the pool depression is within the corridor and only 250′ of forested habitat around the pool is eligible for compensation. The 250′ regulated area around a pool is a minimum We know from multiple studies that species that breed in vernal pools–especially wood frogs and spotted salamanders–travel and live much farther from the pool during the 11+ months of their nonbreeding season–as much as 1500′ or more. Furthermore, the proposed compensation rate is calculated at only 60% of the normal requirement for Significant Wildlife Habitat because the corridor would have some scrub shrub vegetation in it after construction. There are likely many more vernal pool depressions located outside the corridor whose critical terrestrial habitat (CTH) extends within the corridor that have not been considered for compensation, even though this CTH is essential to the long-term viability of these pools. The cumulative loss of all CTH within the corridor–especially when you add in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers jurisdictional vernal pools–is enormous. Because the 250′ state regulated area is only a small portion of the area actually used by vernal pool species, and because of the cumulative impacts to pools whose depressions are located both within and outside the proposed corridor is extensive, we recommend moving to at least 100% of the 8:1 Significant Wildlife Habitat compensation rate, preferably much more.
  2. Increase Inland Wading Birds and Waterfowl compensation to 100% of the 8:1 Significant Wildlife Habitat ratio. The Applicant has applied a 60% compensation rate for Inland Wading Birds and Waterfowl Habitats (IWWHs) without any meaningful justification, except that they applied the same rate to vernal pool compensation. These two habitat types are not the same and should not be automatically treated the same. Many waterfowl species nest up to a ¼ mile or more from wetlands, either on the ground underneath the cover of trees or in tree cavities. Replacing forest with scrub shrub habitat around the wetland will not provide the nesting conditions these species need. We recommend that the compensation rate for all IWWHs be the full 100% of the 8:1 as required by law.
  3. Retain a forested canopy in 100′ adjacent to all brook trout streams. The Applicant has underrepresented impacts to brook trout streams that would result from clearing forestland alongside 11 miles of streams and replacing it with scrub shrub vegetation. Multiple studies and reports have recommended retaining a forest canopy cover of over 70% within at least 100′ of all brook trout streams, with a no-cut zone of 25-100′ (depending on the circumstances), or a no-cut zone of 75′ plus another 75′ zone of no soil disturbance and high stocking. A no-cut zone provides shading that keeps water temperatures cool, large woody material that falls into the stream and provides important in-stream habitat, bank stabilization, and protection of water quality. We recommend retaining a forested canopy in the 100′ adjacent to all brook trout streams in the corridor, but especially where the corridor crosses the South Branch/West Branch Moose River, Cold Stream, and Tomhegan Stream. We also recommend conservation of lands with similar trout stream characteristics managed to these standards to compensate for additional unavoidable impacts, including access to nearby Heritage Fish Waters that could see introduction of nonnative fish or baitfish. The parcels currently proposed for this purpose fall short.
  1. Increase funding for culvert replacements. Maine Audubon appreciates that the Applicant has proposed to commit funding to replace undersized culverts with Stream Smart culverts both along their corridor and outside of the immediate corridor. This approach is crucial as it recognizes that streams within the transmission corridor are connected to streams outside the corridor and that reconnecting streams in a meaningful way requires a holistic, watershed-based approach. In other words, if one culvert is replaced in the corridor, but there are three more upstream that are in terrible shape and impede fish and other aquatic organism movement further upstream, then the one fixed culvert will only open up access to a relatively small section. However, to reconnect substantial portions of the watersheds that would be impacted by the project, we do not believe that the proposed $200,000 is adequate. The Compensation Plan dated January 30, 2019 states that this amount would be “sufficient to replace 20-35 culverts….” The cost of one Stream Smart culvert can range from $50,000 to several hundred thousand, with an average cost of around $120,000. We recommend that the Applicant provide a minimum commitment of $1 million for culvert upgrades outside of the project area.

Recommendations for Minimizing Habitat Fragmentation

            Habitat fragmentation is within the scope of review of the Department. Specifically, Chapter 375 § 15 states:

“B) Scope of Review. In determining whether the developer has made adequate provision for the protection of wildlife and fisheries, the Department shall consider all relevant evidence to that effect, such as evidence that: . . . (2) Proposed alterations and activities will not adversely affect wildlife and fisheries lifecycles.”

As described above, hundreds of fish and wildlife species would be affected by the proposed corridor. Habitat fragmentation can affect movement of specific species and alter their life cycles, therefore consideration of fragmentation is within the scope of the Department’s review.

Maine Audubon recommends that the Department require the following approaches to minimizing habitat fragmentation impacts to the maximum extent practicable:

  1. Bury additional sections of the line. Edge effects and interference with wildlife movement would be reduced by burying portions of the line. The ‘Northern Pass’ transmission corridor project in New Hampshire would have buried 60 miles of cable underground and the proposed ‘TDI Clean Power Link’ in Vermont is permitted to bury its cable the entire 150-mile length of the line, demonstrating that burying larger portions of the line is practicable. Along with The Nature Conservancy in Maine (TNC), we have identified specific areas, totaling approximately 21 miles, where burying the line would provide passageway for wildlife. Please see Exhibit 7 of TNC’s testimony, submitted February 26, 2019 for details.
  2. Use alternative vegetation management techniques. This could include implementing a variety of Vegetation Best Management Practices, such as those proposed by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for the Maine Power Reliability Project, and includes “feathering” or otherwise creating a V-shaped corridor (as required for the Bingham Wind Project, DEP Application L-25973-24-A-N/L-25973-TG-B-N).
  3. Create additional wildlife corridors. The Applicant has proposed allowing 25-35′ vegetation to grow under the wires of the Segment 1 Deer Wintering Area and to raise pole heights in Roaring Brook Mayfly and Northern Spring Salamander habitat. Each method will allow a low forest canopy under the wires. We recommend that these methods be extended to other portions of the proposed corridor to allow periodic passage of a variety of wildlife species across the corridor, connecting the forests on either side of the corridor, and facilitating movement for those species that either avoid or will not cross the opening.

Recommendations for Habitat Fragmentation Compensation

Impacts that cannot be reasonably avoided or minimized must be compensated for. Accounting for edge effects, we estimate that Segment 1 of the proposed corridor would impact more than 5,000 linear acres of habitat. Applying an 8:1 or 20:1 multiplier, similar to that used for wetlands compensation by the state and federal government, would suggest compensation of approximately 40,000 to 100,000 acres of protected lands to offset impacts associated with fragmentation. These lands should be large blocks of unfragmented habitat near the proposed transmission line, preferably of a diverse biogeographic nature and managed for mature forest characteristics in order to provide habitat for the many interior forest and wide-ranging species that would be adversely affected. Conservation could come in the form of fee acquisition, conservation easements, or a combination of the two. This compensation should be in addition to the 2,792 acres already offered to compensate for direct impacts to riparian habitat and deer wintering areas in the corridor.

Conclusion

Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments on the proposed transmission corridor. We believe that the proposed efforts to avoid, minimize and mitigate for impacts to wildlife and habitat fall far short of what should be required if this project is approved. Please take your time to carefully review what has been proposed, what has been recommended by Maine Audubon and others to further reduce and compensate for any impacts, and help make this project, if approved, a much better one than it is now. This should be a model for all future renewable energy projects.

Sincerely,

 

Eliza Donoghue, Esq.

Senior Policy & Advocacy Specialist

[1] McMahon, J. 2018. The Environmental Consequences of Forest Fragmentation in the Western Maine Mountains. Occasional Paper No. 2. Maine Mountains Collaborative, Phillips, Maine.

[2] Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. 2015. Maine’s wildlife action plan. Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Augusta, Maine.