Study: Transmission Line Under Lake Would Have Minor Environmental Impact

Jun 4, 2015

A newly released study by the U.S. Department of Energy found that a proposed $1.2 billion power transmission line under Lake Champlain would have very little effect on the surrounding environment.

The proposed New England Clean Power Link is a project designed by TDI New England to bring electricity generated in Canada into the New England market. Because it would cross an international border, the company must get a Presidential permit in order to build the project. The Department of Energy will consider the results of the new study in deciding whether or not the federal government should issue the permit.

If the project is approved at the federal level, it would also need to be approved by the Vermont Public Service Board in order to legally continue.

The Department of Energy study found that the most intense disturbance of the environment would predictably occur during the construction process, but that most of those impacts would be limited to the area immediately surrounding construction, and most of the noticeable effects would be gone within hours.

In considering the effects of the transmission line, the Department of Energy compared those effects to a “no action alternative” – what would happen if the project wasn’t built. The obvious finding there was that if the project isn’t done, there will be no negative environmental impacts from the project. But the no action plan also presented a problem:

After the closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant last year and continuing growth in energy use in the region, “Vermont’s source for nearly 32 percent of electric power in 2016 is yet to be determined.”

For the most part, the study returned to words like "minimal," "negligible," and "minor" when describing the environmental impacts of the project.

The transmission line, if approved, isn’t expected to be completed until 2019, so the state’s 2016 energy needs will have to be met elsewhere, but the study found that if the project is not completed, “the state of Vermont’s forecasted energy demand would remain unmet, and energy and transmission development actions would be expected to continue. Purchases of power from other generating sources probably would be required to address the area’s electricity needs.”

In essence, the study says that if this project doesn’t work out, Vermont will still have to do something to meet demand. It’s possible meeting demands through other means would bring non-renewable energy into the state’s portfolio, so not building a transmission line that’s expected to bring hydro-electric power from Canada to Vermont carries some environmental risk.

The study said construction of the project would likely stir up sediment and any pollutants already in the lakebed, but would not introduce any new sediment or contaminants to the lake. It also said the sediment stirred up by construction would disappear in a matter of hours, and the disturbed lakebed would return to “pre-installation conditions” within about three years of construction.

“I think we have a very practical position on this in that economic and environmental impacts need to be balanced. We’re just not willing here to absorb ecological impacts for Massachusetts to be the beneficiary of lower electricity rates.” - James Ehlers, Lake Champlain International executive director

For the most part, the study returned to words like “minimal,” “negligible,” and “minor” when describing the environmental impacts of the project, which “could temporarily disturb up to 550 acres of the Lake Champlain lakebed.”

James Ehlers, the executive director of Lake Champlain International, is a vocal advocate for the lake’s ecological health. He said that while he hasn’t yet read the new study, his group isn’t outright opposed to the project.

“I think we have a very practical position on this in that economic and environmental impacts need to be balanced,” he said in an interview Thursday. “We’re just not willing here to absorb ecological impacts for Massachusetts to be the beneficiary of lower electricity rates.”

Ehlers said his group’s main concerns about the project are the effects of the heat that comes as a byproduct of electrical transmission and the environmental impacts where the transmission line goes into and out of the lake.

The study doesn't itself rule on whether the project may move forward or not, and federal regulators will also take comments from the public about the proposed project before making a decision.

For now, Lake Champlain International is looking to state regulators at the Agency of Natural Resources to make sure the proper protections are in place before the project moves forward.

The study, known as an Environmental Impact Statement, doesn’t itself rule on whether the project may move forward or not, and federal regulators will also take comments from the public about the proposed project before making a decision.

A similar project in New York to bring Canadian power to the New York City area is also set to go through Lake Champlain, and the new study acknowledges that many of the environmental impacts of the New England Clean Power Link are expected to be similar to that project. The New York transmission line has already received most of the required permits to move forward with construction.