Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Maine DEP update

Maine Department of Environmental Protection has reversed itself and will schedule a public hearing on proposed changes to the state's clean air standards. No date has been set.

Environmental groups, legislators, and the general public were outraged when the Portland Press Herald reported yesterday that the state agency had tried to sneak through the changes with no public input. The agency has already been criticized for its lack of transparency, and there have been calls for an investigation into possible ethics violations on the part of its commissioner, a former industry lobbyist.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

At Maine’s DEP, it’s the fox guarding the henhouse

What happens when you put an industry lobbyist in charge of environmental protection? Just take a look at what’s going on in Maine. According to an article in today’s Portland Press-Herald, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection wants to weaken the state’s clean-air regulations, and they don’t want anyone to know about it.
No public hearings have been scheduled, and a notice of a public comment period was buried in an obscure part of the agency’s website.
At first glance it might seem surprising that an agency charged with protecting the environment would actually work against it. It only makes sense when you see the cast of characters involved.
First, there’s Gov. Paul LePage, perhaps not the brightest bulb on the tree. Elected in 2010, he immediately released a list of environmental regulations he wanted to eliminate or weaken. Much like former Pres. G.W. Bush, he wanted to turn back the environmental clock back a decade or more. LePage also supported opening up 10 million acres of Maine wilderness for development.
To help him in his quest, he appointed Deborah Aho, an industry lobbyist, as his DEP commissioner. She had previously represented chemical, drug, oil, and automobile companies. Apparently she continued working on their behalf as commissioner, failing to enforce existing regulations and making decisions that would  benefit her former clients.
So much so, that a petition was sent to the legislature calling for an investigation into her apparently unethical activities. A bill was filed to look into the allegations, but within days the legislator who had filed it, withdrew it, saying it needed revisions. It hasn’t been refiled since.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Northern Pass Rears Its Ugly Head (Again)

Despite massive public opposition, significantly over-budget, and three years behind schedule,  the CEO of the Northern Pass Project vows the controversial high voltage transmission line will be built.
The project is a 180-mile power line that would bring power from Canada to New England. It first came to the attention of environmentalists and others when the proposed route was unveiled. The developers wanted to cut a 100-foot wide swath through the White Mountain National Forest, with steel pylons towering above the surrounding forest.
Soon, it wasn’t just a few environmental and conservation interests that opposed it. They were joined by residents and business interests who were concerned about the impact the project would have on the region’s tourist industry. They rallied to buy up land and conservation easements along the route.
And while it was originally described as bringing power to New Hampshire, it turned out that New Hampshire doesn’t need it. The developers were planning to sell it on the New England power grid – but they don’t want it either. ISO-New England, which manages the New England power grid opposes the project.
Yet another route was unveiled two weeks ago. It moves the route a few miles to the east, still through pristine wilderness areas. None of the opponents have changed their mind. The project is a joint venture by Northeast Utilities, Hydro-Quebec, and PSNH. All three are privately held corporations – not public utilities.
“We are ready to move forward,” said CEO Gary Long when the plan was unveiled.

The project won’t be starting anytime soon, though Long predicted it would be operational by 2017. There’s still a host of impact statements and permit – including a Presidential permit – that will be required.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Stung by Criticism, Utilities Go on Tree-Cutting Rampage

Here in the northeast, we’ve been hit by a succession of “weather events” – ice storms, wind-storms, hurricanes, early snowfall, late snowfall. Each one offered the utility companies serving this area to demonstrate once again that they were completely unprepared.
In each case, customers in the most advanced country in the world were left without power for weeks at a time.
They have come in for heavy criticism from citizens and government officials alike.
Now the utility companies are fighting back – against their customers and their trees, going on a rampage to cut down every standing tree even remotely close to a utility line. They say this is because branches falling on the lines are causing the outages and slowing repairs.
In Massachusetts, NSTAR last month cut down hundreds of trees in a 100-foot wide, 30-mile long swath. They called a halt only after a howl of protest, according to boston.com report.
National Grid has told residents it will soon start a program of “heavy-trimming.”
In Western Massachusetts, Western Mass. Electric has announced a program of “enhanced trimming.”
This could all be avoided by simply requiring all overhead lines to be buried. Almost all other advanced countries do this routinely. Underground, power wouldn’t go out every time a branch falls, or when snow and ice pile up on the lines. There would be no need for clear-cutting people’s property.
The initial cost would be high, to be sure, and this is what utility companies don’t like. But in the long run, maintenance would less, and there wouldn’t be the high cost of getting power back up after a “weather event.”

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Victory for the Blackstone: Court backs EPA, Worcester must stop dumping sewage into river

Score one for the Blackstone River, and all the people who care about it.
 The U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals has lifted a stay of enforcement of an EPA order that will force upgrades at the Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement district sewage treatment plant, according to an article in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
The problem is a simple one. The discharge from the plant in Millbury has been violating federal clean water standards for years. While other communities have gradually been coming into compliance, Worcester officials have opposed making the improvements, and fighting the EPA every step of the way.
They won a temporary victory in April 2011, when they were able to secure a stay of enforcement, claiming that the EPA’s scientific data was flawed. After a year of review, the three-judge panel has sided with the EPA.
“The district’s responsibility for serious pollution problems in the important waterways in two states is clear, and its challenge to the 2008 permit has no merit,” reads the decision. They also said the District must begin work on complying immediately.
Despite the body of scientific evidence, and the considered opinion of thee federal judges, City Manager Michael V. O’Brien insists he knows better.
“We stand firm that the EPA’s science and projected Blackstone River models are hopelessly flawed. We have proven this with our unbiased science.”
Unbiased? O’Brien contends it will cost “hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars” to make the improvements, though the actual cost is pegged at $200 million.
“Ratepayers will pay double and triple what they pay now,” he said. “The question is to what end?”
Obviously not someone who cares about the river.

Note: I'm coming back to this blog after a long absence. Partly it's been a matter of a busy schedule, partly a matter of thinking about the focus of this blog. My goal here will be to call attention to environmental issues I consider important whether global or local.

Monday, January 30, 2012

NH Senate Denies Eminent Domain for Northern Pass – Or Does It?

Under intense public scrutiny, the New Hampshire Senate last week approved a bill that supposedly sets limits on the use of eminent domain to seize property for public projects and excludes using it for privately-funded projects.
That would seem to exclude the controversial Northern Pass project, a proposed 180-mile transmission line that would bring hydroelectric power south from Canada through the White Mountains to central New Hampshire. Northern Pass is being proposed by a joint effort of Northeast Utilities, NSTAR and HydroQuebec, all private companies.
The power brought down from Canada is not meant for New Hampshire, but would be sold on the open market.
Northern Pass had been quietly suggesting they might pursue eminent domain if they ran into property owners unwilling to sell. They have already spent some $4 million buying up land along the route, but ran into a roadblock when the owners of the Balsams Resort in Dixville Notch sold a key parcel to a conservation group instead.
Opponents of the project packed the visitors gallery during the Senate proceedings, and were cheered by the vote, which they saw as another setback for the developers.
The celebration might be premature.
There seems to be a loophole (isn’t there always?) big enough to drive a utility truck through. The bill allows eminent domain to be used for energy projects if it is shown that the project would be beneficial for the environment. And a late amendment puts some of the decision-making powers into the hands of ISO-New England, a power regulator that works closely with the companies involved in the project.
It might be worth noting that ISO-New England supports the re-licensing of the rickety old Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, completely disregarding a long list of safety issues. They probably wouldn’t blink twice at ripping a transmission line through some of the most beautiful landscape in New England.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Northern Pass Developers Pushing State To Take Land By Force

Ever since the controversy began over the construction of a new transmission line to bring power from Canada into New Hampshire slicing through some of that state’s most scenic landscape, the backers of the project have been quietly lobbying for eminent domain powers to force reluctant landowners along the proposed route to sell.
The issue gets its first real test tomorrow when the New Hampshire Senate takes up a measure that would amend the state eminent domain law to allow them to do just that.
Until just a few years ago, eminent domain was only regarded as a last resort by governments when it was necessary to buy land for needed public projects – highways, schools, etc.
In a case from New London, Connecticut, the Supreme Court under the Bush administration ruled that such a land-taking could be initiated for a private project, if some demonstrable public good resulted. At issue was an old neighborhood in the Fort Trumbull section of New London. Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, had indicated had it wanted to build a facility in the New London area.
A local developer convinced the city government that the Fort Trumbull neighborhood would be a perfect site for Pfizer as well as other businesses that it would attract. The only problem was that the residents didn’t want to sell.
Using the argument that the project would give a much needed boost to the local economy, the Supreme Court ruled that the homes could be taken by eminent domain. As a result, the residents were bought out, forced to find homes elsewhere. The houses were torn down, the land was bulldozed, and then Pfizer announced it would build somewhere else. Only recently have a few new homes been built on the site.
The Northern Pass developers had initially argued that the project would bring much-needed electrical power to New Hampshire. It quickly was revealed that New Hampshire had plenty of electrical power, and most of the imported power would be sold on the grid.
They then changed their argument, saying it would mean up to 1,500 jobs in the Granite State, but a rival power group now says those figures are exaggerated, in reality less than half that number, and most of those would go to specialists who would likely have to be hired from outside New Hampshire.
As a spokesperson for the Northern Pass developers said, “You have to consider the source.”
That cuts both ways.