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DEP leader to take vote into account in permit decision

DEP Commissioner Melanie Loyzim says a public hearing will be held on Nov. 22 for both sides to comment on Tuesday's vote. Until then, work on the corridor can go on

PORTLAND, Maine — The construction of the Central Maine Power Corridor will continue, but a decision on whether to shut it down is likely to come later this month.

Maine’s environmental commissioner Melanie Loyzim said Friday that she’ll take the referendum vote into account when deciding whether to suspend a permit for a $1 billion electric transmission line in western Maine.

Loyzim will close comments at the end of a new public hearing on Nov. 22 so she can expedite a decision. Her letter to the New England Clean Energy Connect points to a more aggressive timetable after Maine residents voted Tuesday to halt the project. 

The law takes effect 30 days after election results are certified. Meanwhile, CMP’s parent company Avangrid is suing over the referendum vote, contending it was unconstitutional.

Suspending the corridor project would be a huge blow to Avangrid and the NECEC, which have already spent at least $350 million on it, according to the most recent comments from the company. It would mean stopping contractors and sending hundreds of workers home. 

But on Friday corridor opponents said this week’s vote, with nearly 60% opposing the corridor, means shutting down the project is exactly what should happen. 

“It's time for the DEP to prioritize environmental protection over foreign corporate interests, “ Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford said in a virtual press conference organized by the YES on 1 group that led the referendum. 

"CMP is plowing through the upper Kennebec region with no public land lease and without the approval of Maine voters,” Bennett added.

Other opponents, including Sandi Howard of NO CMP Corridor, said the vote sends a clear message.

“It's time for CMP to do right by the state and their own customers, so we urge CMP to stop construction now.”

 Avangrid, the parent of both CMP and the NECEC, did not comment on the opponents’ call for action by the DEP. 

NECEC President Thorn Dickinson said after the vote that the company continues to strongly believe in the project and will do all it can to see it built. To that end, Avangrid filed suit in Superior Court to block the law passed by voters from taking effect, arguing it violates the constitution in several ways, including the retroactive aspect.

The following day, the attorney for project opponents sent a letter to the DEP, asking the state agency to immediately order a halt to construction to prevent any further clearing of the forest along the corridor route.

The Maine DEP still hasn’t decided on an earlier request to stop the project, which was made in August, following the court ruling that the project failed to secure a valid permit to cross public land. The DEP is still considering whether that ruling is a significant change of condition to the project and therefore warrants a suspension of the permit.

That process, which has now lasted over two months, will apparently be concluded by or before the end of November. 

 As the agency prepares for those decisions,. the Superior Court will presumably schedule its own proceedings on the effort to block and overturn the referendum law passed by voters. No timetable for that process has been announced.

The company will evidently have to pursue the case on its own. A spokeswoman for Gov. Janet Mills said Friday, “The governor does not intend to weigh in on the court case. “

While all that is unfolding, work on the NECEC can continue, the DEP said Friday. On Wednesday, the NECEC President said 29 of the 53 miles of new corridor has been cleared. Opponents said at their press conference that if the project is stopped permanently, the land that has been cleared will need to be restored.