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.
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 changes weren't enough to win over the project's critics.
The Conservation Law Foundation called the new route little more than "putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound."
Gov. Maggie Hassan said that while it was encouraging that the Northern Pass would avoid the Connecticut Lakes headwaters and bury some lines, more changes are needed. Hassan said from her initial review that she continued to "believe that project officials must more fully explore options for burying more of the lines."
And the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests — one of the project's strongest critics — said that if Northern Pass could bury eight miles, "then they can bury 180 miles."
"We take it as good news that the folks at Northern Pass at long last discovered the shovel," society spokesman Jack Savage said.
But Long said burying additional line would be cost prohibitive. He said the new route increased the price tag from $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion, mostly due to burying part of the line.
"It's very expensive. It's not something you do lightly," he said.
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 thought it had blocked Northern Pass officials from securing a route by buying conservation easements along what it presumed would be the route. But Long said Thursday that the Northern Pass has secured the route through easements, purchases and use of existing rights of way.
Former U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Hassan recently added their voices to those opposing any attempt to traverse the Connecticut Lakes headwaters, which Shaheen and Gregg worked to protect. Shaheen said Thursday she was glad the new route avoids the headwaters, but she will continue to monitor the project as it undergoes its review.
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.
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.
Associated Press writer Lynne Tuohy contributed to this report from Hooksett.
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