Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Northern Pass, Kiss My ….

by Madeleine Kando

It is Thanksgiving morning and we are driving towards Canada through northern New Hampshire. The road snakes through a landscape dominated by tall pine trees and clean shaven, rolling hay fields which are now covered with a thin sprinkling of snow. This is the North Country, sparsely populated and very poor. It is all land, with a few small towns that seem to have been forgotten by civilization. Houses are few and far between, many of them in need of serious repair. Old barns are left to rot because the cost of demolishing them is too high.

It hasn't changed much since we first started to come here almost 30 years ago to visit our friends the Kaufmans. They own 300 acres which they bought for a song back in their hippie days, got a few horses and after having lived in a tee-pee for years, decided to build a house buried deep inside their property. Our visits to this small corner of the world gives us a sense of security; no matter how tumultuous our lives are back in Boston, the pine trees up here tell us ‘don’t worry, we’ll be here, waiting for you, no matter how long you stay away’.

We are the only car driving north in this solitary landscape and as we approach Whitefield, one on a chain of small towns, we see a bright orange sign on someone's property: 'Northern Pass, Kiss my Ass'. It is one of many signs that we will come across on our way to Colebrook, our destination. Other signs read 'Stop the Northern Pass' and 'Live Free of Fry', a pun on New Hampshire's motto 'Live Free or Die'.

It is clear that something is happening in this remote corner of New England. Something that is disrupting the steadfast beauty of this landscape. Something bigger than the usual stories of car-moose collisions or of the occasional hiker getting shot accidentally by an over-zealous hunter. It is a story that you usually read about in the papers, a story that affects other people. But this story is happening to our friends and indirectly to us because of our emotional attachment to their land and to the North Country in general.

The story begins with a Canadian company called Hydro-Quebec, the largest producer of hydro-electric power in the world. Canada being what it is - a vast territory covered with lakes, rivers and waterfalls - uses its water resources to generate electricity. It has built enormous dams, diverted water from its rivers and has flooded areas in the boreal forest the size of small countries. The way this giant company has altered the landscape in this part of the continent is mind boggling. Hydro-Quebec generates far more electricity than Quebec needs and has to expand its outside markets. It has partnered with Northeast Utilities and NStar, two New England energy companies to extend their distribution lines through Northern New Hampshire to connect to the existing grid further south. This project is called Northern Pass.

It is at this point in the story that our friends get involved. As we approach Colebrook, snow begins to fall. The voice on the radio has unobtrusively switched to French and the names of stores now read ‘Laperle’ or ‘Laverdiere’, clear signs that we are close to the Canadian border.

Colebrook is just the first step to reaching the Kaufmans' property. A smaller mountain road takes us by the famous Beaver Brook Falls, white and frozen at this time of year, onto an even smaller dirt road that is taking a toll on our Camry's undercarriage. After a good 45 minutes we merge onto our friends' mile-long driveway. We pass the horse barn with the two horses curiously following our bumpy progression until we finally see their house emerge from between the tall trees.

The next day, over a lavish Thanksgiving dinner, the story begins to unfold as our hosts, Marty and Janice, explain how they are trying to prevent Northern Pass from constructing huge 130 foot electric towers on adjacent properties that would devalue their own land and destroy the beauty of the landscape. There are heroes and villains in this story. Lynne Placey, one of the Kaufmans' neighbors has turned down Northern Pass' offer of half a million dollars for the right of way on her land, but other landowners have caved in, worrying that if the utility company invokes the power of 'eminent domain', they would be forced to eventually sell at a much lower price. Everything seems to be interconnected in this rural area. Marty's spring, his only source of water, is on his neighbor's land which has now been sold to Northern Pass. Even though he retains the rights to the spring, a number of bad things could happen. Springs are delicate creatures;  his spring could easily be killed if Northern Pass decides to use dynamite to level the ground to build the towers. It could become plugged with debris, concrete or other by-products during the construction process. Without water Marty's land is worthless.

The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests has purchased 1,500 acres of land in the intended path of Northern Pass, and thus is disrupting the project’s ability to move forward with that route. Another organization worth my admiration is the Appalachian Mountain Club which has filed a motion to oppose the project.

There are other questions. For example, why not bury these new power lines underground? Other states and countries are doing exactly that, but these companies say it would be too expensive. They have us over a barrel, because energy companies like Hydro-Quebec, NStar and Northern Utilities are what are called 'natural monopolies'. If I don't like what my telephone company does to the environment, I can switch to one that does a better job and by doing that I take away their revenue. In the case of electricity, it would be too expensive to create a duplicate system of generation, transmission and distribution. These companies have the monopoly over their product and we are forced to buy from them.

The irony is that New Hampshire will not benefit from these new power lines. The state already has enough electric power. It is the southern New England states like Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York that will buy the electricity. So, since I live in Massachusetts, I have no right to complain. Every time I turn on the lights in my bedroom, I contribute to the problem. This story is my attempt to alleviate my conscience somewhat and to try to create some awareness.

It's getting dark outside and I can barely see what I write, but I am waiting as long as I can to turn on my desk lamp. I know I am destroying another tree in the process. leave comment here