The developer of a $1 billion electric transmission line is suspending construction at the request of Maine's governor after she certified election results Friday in which residents firmly opposed the project.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills had urged New England Clean Energy Connect Transmission LLC to stop construction on the 145-mile (233-kilometer) project until legal challenges are resolved.
Thorn Dickinson, president and CEO of NECEC, said work will be temporarily halted until a judge rules on a request for a preliminary injunction in its lawsuit contending the referendum was unconstitutional.
"This was not an easy decision. Suspending construction will require the layoff of more than 400 Mainers just as the holiday season begins," Dickinson said in a statement Friday evening.
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Mills supports the project but said she also supports "the rule of law that governs our society and the will of the people that informs it."
Funded by Massachusetts ratepayers, the project would supply up to 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydropower to the New England power grid. That's enough electricity for 1 million homes.
Critics said the project is damaging the woods and changing the character of a part of western Maine with little if any benefit for its residents.
Supporters said big solutions are needed to remove carbon from the environment and address climate change. They also contend the flood of electricity would stabilize electricity prices in New England.
Maine utility regulators this week approved electric rate increases approaching 90% for most Maine residents starting Jan. 1.
Utilities supporting and opposing the project poured more than $90 million into the battle ahead of the referendum, making it the most expensive referendum election in Maine history.
On Friday, Mills certified the outcome of election, as well as other election results, including the passage of a "right to food" constitutional amendment and $110 million transportation bond issue. That means the power line referendum becomes law in 30 days.
The Maine proposal for a transmission line mostly followed existing utility corridors. But a new section needed to be cut through 53 miles (85 kilometers) of woods to reach the border.
Construction started this year on the New England Clean Energy Connect, so miles of trees already have been cleared.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine, which opposed the project, said the developers should do more than simply pause construction.
"It's time for CMP to respect the will of Maine people by abandoning this controversial project and restoring the portions of western Maine it has damaged," said Pete Didisheim, NRCM's advocacy director.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection plans to hold a final public hearing Monday whether to suspend or halt the permit for the project following the referendum vote.
The DEP previously gave its approval along with the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, Maine Public Utilities Commission and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But a state judge called into question a lease for a 1-mile stretch of the corridor on state land, and then voters rejected the referendum on Nov. 2. Both matters are subjects of ongoing litigation.