Battle Lines | The Northern Pass Energy Project
On a crystalline afternoon in mid-March, I left my home in Cabot, Vermont, and headed for Interstate 93 south. Within minutes, I’d crossed into New Hampshire. The view through my windshield was dominated by the White Mountains, standing in jagged relief against the cool blue sky. I passed through Littleton, then Franconia, then by the base of Cannon Mountain, where I watched a skier arc wide turns down a steep trail. Each turn threw a thin curtain of snow into the air, where it hung for a second or two before sifting gently to the ground.
I was heading toward Franklin, a small city of about 8,500 situated on the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee rivers, where they join to form the Merrimack River. The Merrimack flows southward through the state capital of Concord and into Massachusetts, before turning northeastward to empty into the Atlantic Ocean at the town of Newburyport.
Like many New England communities founded near moving water, Franklin was once a thriving mill town. And like many once-thriving mill towns, Franklin is stuck in a decades-long struggle to reinvent itself. It’s not exactly a depressed town; the unemployment rate is about a point higher than the state average, which was 5.8 percent at the time of my visit. Rather, it has the feel of a place that hasn’t settled on its future, where things are hard, sure, but still good enough to imagine that the future might be better than the recent past.
“This town’s coming back to life,” Cynthia Vera insisted, when I asked her about Franklin’s fortunes. Vera runs an antiques and auction company with her husband, Anthony, on Franklin’s Central Street. Vera & Company Auctioneers is located just a couple of doors down from a small pawnshop, where, at the time I dropped in, a young man was trying to start a gas-powered leaf blower under the dubious eye of the proprietor. “It ran last fall,” he said, but his voice was low and his eyes cast down, as if even he knew that last fall was a long time ago. He gave a little nervous chuckle: “I’m gonna have work pretty soon. Then I won’t have to keep pawning all my shit.”
I’d come to Franklin because I’d wanted to gain some insight into the community that is home to what is almost certainly the largest concentration of Northern Pass supporters in the entire state. The Northern Pass is a proposed 180-mile power transmission project that, if approved and constructed, would form a corridor of 80- to 135-foot towers carrying electricity from Hydro-Québec in Canada to Deerfield, New Hampshire. If the project is approved, Franklin is where the power will be converted from the direct-current (DC) electricity supplied by Hydro-Québec to the alternating current (AC) that flows into 99 percent of all U.S. homes. The impact on the town, Mayor Ken Merrifield told me, would be “staggering and historic,” increasing the tax base by 44 percent and creating more than 300 jobs here during the construction phase. “What we’d be able to do boggles the mind,” the mayor said.
But “staggering and historic” is an apt description for another aspect of the Northern Pass proposal: the near-ubiquity and overwhelming ferocity of the public’s opposition to it. Resistance began immediately following the project’s official announcement in October 2010, and over the ensuing months has only gained momentum, like a chunk of granite careening down a mountainside.
Within days of the announcement, the Web sites livefreeorfry.org and bury northernpass.blogspot.com had gone live, and protesters were composing, sending, and forwarding posts and e-mails. They spoke of obfuscation, profiteering, environmental degradation, and, perhaps most alarmingly, eminent domain. They listed dates of important meetings and legislative hearings. They urged defiance, persistence, and action.
By the time I’d become aware of the proposal, in mid-February 2011, the opposition had become so organized and so pervasive that it seemed as if the entire population of New Hampshire had turned against The Northern Pass. But then, I live in northern Vermont, and although I can see into New Hampshire from a hilltop just two miles east of my home, perhaps my non-native perspective was skewed. Perhaps the project’s supporters simply hadn’t mobilized as quickly and effectively. Perhaps there was more to the story.
Which is how I found myself sitting across from Mayor Merrifield and City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, in a small conference room in Franklin’s city hall. Just a few doors up the street, the frustrated owner of that gas-powered leaf blower was standing on the sidewalk and smoking a cigarette, considering his next move. In an hour, City Hall would be host to a “scoping meeting,” during which U.S. Department of Energy officials would take public comments regarding The Northern Pass. (Because the project would cross an international border, a presidential permit is required; hence the involvement of the DOE.) The evening before, a similar meeting in the town of Pembroke had drawn 400 citizens; of the 55 speakers, 53 voiced opposition, one expressed neutrality, and one spoke in favor of the project.
Still, Mayor Merrifield was keen to point out that Franklin wouldn’t be the only community that would benefit from the transmission lines.
“Yes, we’re definitely the big winner in terms of the property-tax windfall, but we’re still going to get less than a quarter of what goes to the entire state,” he told me. Elizabeth Dragon nodded her head. The mayor continued: “And remember, we’re looking at 1,200 jobs statewide during the construction phase.”
Dragon broke in: “People say, ‘Oh, but those jobs are temporary.'” She was right; that was exactly what people were saying. “But I say, ‘Temporary is better than no job.'” She looked at me almost defiantly, as if daring me to contradict her. “Our businesses need a boost, and there’s going to be economic spinoff.”
“That’s right,” Merrifield added. “People may even decide to live in the towns where they’re working.” To me, that sounded like an overly optimistic view of things, but I didn’t really know; maybe he was right. We were quiet for a moment. Late-afternoon sunlight streamed through the window and lay across the table like thin fabric. Through a doorway, I could hear the sounds of the city’s business being done: the shuffle of bodies, the murmur of voices, the clicking of a keyboard.
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