FARMINGTON, Maine — The latest round in the battle over the proposed Central Maine Power transmission line project began Monday -- even as supporters and opponents wait for a decision on the project from Maine’s Public Utilities Commission. 

The Department of Environmental Protection and the Land Use Planning Commission started their week-long public hearing on the project, officially called the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC). The hearing will focus specifically on impacts to land, water, wildlife and scenery. Those are all critical issues in the ongoing debate over the line, which would bring 1,200 megawatts of hydropower from Quebec through Maine to the New England grid, with the costs paid by Massachusetts.

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Central Maine Power wants to build the controversial new section of the line across more than 53 miles of largely undeveloped woods and mountains. The area is popular for snowmobiling, fishing and hunting -- and is important to the  economies of Somerset and Franklin counties. CMP told the DEP it has been careful in siting the transmission line to avoid mountain tops, wetlands and other important environmental areas. 

"I would point to a lot of mitigation techniques," said Thorn Dickinson, vice president for business development at Avangrid, CMP’s parent company. 

Dickinson referred to a range of steps the company will take to protect critical areas, such as "higher structure (poles) to make sure that the forest grows to a certain level and impacts in those areas are less. We also have tapered vegetation in order to deal with visual impact in certain parts of the corridor."

The company says the impact on wildlife will be minimal. But opponents don’t agree. They say there will be adverse effects on habitat for insects, fish and animals, and that local communities will be harmed by the new corridor.  

"Currently, it is a working forest," said Caratunk selectman Elizabeth Caruson, "But we all know clearcuts grow back, and this corridor will have a permanent and devastating impact to the wildlife, to the wetlands, the fisheries with herbicides poisoning the waters and brook trout fisheries."

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CMP testified about steps it says will protect brook trout streams.

However, an ally of CMP in its application to the Public Utilities Commission says it is also concerned about wildlife impacts. The Conservation Law Foundation signed onto a negotiated settlement in the PUC case, but Sean Mahoney of the CLF says his group is staying neutral, as far as the DEP is concerned. Mahoney says they are concerned about the transmission line fragmenting wildlife habitat and hopes to convince the DEP to order changes.

"There are ways you can minimize (impacts) and ways you can avoid that by potentially putting the line underground, or ways to minimize it by keeping as much of the corridor -- the transmission corridor -- as forested as possible," Mahoney said.

Running the line underground is an issue raised by opponents at the PUC hearings and again today. But Avangrid’s Dickinson says they did not offer to run the line underground because the cost would have been too high to win the bid from Massachusetts. 

"In fact, the analysis we have done now as part of the rebuttal clearly demonstrates that. If underground had been included for even part of the line,  that would have made the project noncompetitive and would not have been selected," he said.

Underground lines and wildlife impacts are likely to all be examined in detail over the coming four days of the hearings. The DEP  has said it is likely to continue the hearings in May.

Meanwhile, a decision by the PUC is expected this month.