Maine voters torn by Hydro-Québec plan as referendum set for Tuesday

FORKS, MAINE — A major Hydro-Québec electricity export project is tearing apart the citizens of Maine, who will vote on its future in a referendum on Tuesday. 

In communities near the 233-kilometre route of the Appalachian-Maine interconnection line, the worksite raises both environmental fears and hopes for economic revitalization. 

The line passing through Maine to export 9.45 terawatt-hours annually to Massachusetts could bring billions of dollars to the Crown corporation. A rejection by voters would represent a second setback for Hydro-Québec after the initial plan to run electricity through New Hampshire in 2019 was abandoned due to public opposition. 

Elizabeth Caruso, an elected official from Caratunk, which has a population of less than 80, is among the first people in Maine to have mobilized against the project. 

She says the interconnection line would disrupt the lives of residents and allow Hydro-Québec and Central Maine Power (CMP), the partner that would build the portion of the line in the United States, to rake in "billions."  

She is concerned about the consequences of the construction of the line on the Northwoods Forest in the north of the state. 

“CMP and Hydro-Québec are trying to place a scar across a sector that is very sensitive to the environment,” she said. "It will change the landscape."

She also fears the project will harm the tourism industry, on which the region's economy depends. 

Peter Dostie, owner of Hawk’s Nest Lodge in nearby Forks, shares these concerns and is worried that tourists will leave the area if the project goes ahead and turbines destroy the area's charm.

But CMP rejects those fears. 

“There's been really a lot of effort to reduce the visual impact,” said Katie Yates, community relations manager for New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC), the name of the line. 

She said CMP has focused on not disrupting the activities of hiking and recreational vehicle enthusiasts. The presence of open land around the lines could even facilitate the movement of animal species and be good for hunters, she said.

Despite these steps, opposition to the project is said to be strong among hunters and fishermen. In 2018, the Sportman’s Alliance of Maine, a lobby that represents them, withdrew its support after a survey of its members showed "overwhelming" opposition. 

Not all entrepreneurs in northern Maine are opposed to the project. 

In Lewiston, where the line ends to the south, the city strongly supports the project. The possibility of reducing three million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by using Hydro-Québec surpluses, alone, is enough to convince Lincoln Jeffers, director of the economic development department of state's second largest city. 

"It's good for New England, it's good for Maine." 

Nearly half of the US$1 billion invested in the project will be deployed in Lewiston, where the infrastructure will be built to bring electricity from Hydro-Québec to Massachusetts, said the municipal official. 

He estimates that the project will increase municipal tax revenues by US$6 million to US$7 million out of a total budget of approximately US$50 million. 

“Our economy is diversified, but we have some poorer areas downtown,” he said.

"Raising property values will help us lower municipal taxes and make cities more attractive to businesses." 

For the municipality of Jay, the potential tax revenues generated by the project are "welcome," said Paul Binette, a collection agent. Municipal taxes increased from 2011 to 2018 due to difficulties in the paper industry. The situation had stabilized recently, but a factory explosion in 2020 dealt another economic blow to the city. 

Still, Binette says he's not taking sides in the debate. 

“The decision is up to the citizens of Maine. If they refuse the project, "no" means "no" and the taxes will go up." 

The project is a golden opportunity for Maine's economy, says Dana Connors, president of the Maine Chamber of Commerce, located in the state capital of Augusta, where the line does not cross. He fears that by cancelling the project, companies will fear investing in Maine. 

"It's not every day that you can have an investment of US$1 billion that will be fully paid for by residents of another state (Massachusetts)." 

Peter Dostie, who is also a collection agent, believes voters will reject the Hydro-Québec project. 

"There are certain things that are sacred in Maine: the lobster industry, the elk population and the Northwoods Forest." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 29, 2021.

Stéphane Rolland, The Canadian Press