CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- Officials in charge of the Northern Pass project reversed themselves Thursday and proposed burying roughly eight miles of their planned 187-mile transmission line carrying high-voltage, Canadian hydroelectric power originating in northern New Hampshire.
The new proposal is east of the original plan and won't traverse the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters conservation area as some feared. The plan was obtained by The Associated Press before a Thursday news conference to outline its details.
Critics argue the power line's towers along the route — especially in the North Country — would rise above the trees and would damage New Hampshire's environment, lower property values and make the state less attractive to tourists.
But Northern Pass spokesmen said they took those concerns into account in developing a new proposal with buried lines, lower tower heights and fewer miles outside of existing transmission line rights of way.
"As we move forward, I'm asking those who have previously opposed this project to be open to working with us to address concerns," said Gary Long, president and chief operating officer of Public Service of New Hampshire, a subsidiary of the project's parent company, Connecticut-based Northeast Utilities.
The new proposed route's path won't include any portions of the towns of Colebrook, Columbia or Stratford. Power lines would be buried under a 2,300-foot section crossing Route 3 in Pittsburg and 7.5 miles through portions of town and state roads in Stewartstown and Clarksville. Two years ago, project organizers said burying the lines would be too costly and possibly do more harm to the environment.
"We understand the interest in burying the lines as a way to avoid potential visual impacts and we believe that these underground sections, combined with the more remote overhead portions of the route, will go a long way toward addressing those concerns," Long said.
The privately-funded, $1.4 billion project entails building a line that would transmit 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydroelectric power into New England. The plan still faces scrutiny from the state and federal governments. Project officials will submit an amended application to the U.S. Department of Energy to explain the route so it can undergo a federal review process. Next year, the project will submit a permit application to New Hampshire's site evaluation committee for review.
The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests — a strong and vocal critic — had thought it had blocked Northern Pass officials from securing a route by buying conservation easements along what it presumed would be the route.
Former U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Gov. Maggie Hassan recently added their voices to those opposing any attempt to traverse the Connecticut Lakes headwaters, which Shaheen and Gregg worked to protect.
The Legislature debated a series of bills this year aimed at slowing down or stopping construction. None that would stop the project survived.
Long said Northern Pass officials worked hard to develop a new proposal that responded to concerns about the environment and visual impacts.
"Over the past two years, we've met with landowners, citizens, key stakeholders and public officials from across New Hampshire in an effort to better understand their concerns with our original proposal," he said.
The new proposal includes just over 32 miles of new rights of way, which has been placed to minimize visual impacts, and places the remaining 147 miles in existing rights of way where transmission and distribution lines exist today, the company said. The overhead portion in the North Country will be more remote and more shielded from view by forest, officials said. The tower heights have been reduced from 135 feet to between 85 feet and 95 feet in the White Mountain National Forest and elsewhere along the direct current portion of the line that runs from the Canadian border to Franklin. The 17-mile section of alternating current from Franklin to Concord has been redesigned to reduce tower heights. The most common structure heights in the section will be 80 feet.
"The new, overhead portion of the route is an improvement over the original route because it features much larger, isolated properties and is located in less populated areas," Long said.
He said 83 percent of the route will be underground or on existing rights of way.