Central Maine Power voluntarily halted construction Nov. 19 on its $1-billion hydroelectric transmission project in western Maine following a plea from Gov. Janet Mills (D), after the Nov. 2 decision by 60% of state voters to reject the project. The utility and project supporters still await a decision by the state business court on a temporary restraining order filing against the vote, which they claim is unconstitutional.

The 145-mile New England Clean Energy Connect project is set to would deliver hydropower from Quebec through Maine to supply Massachusetts residents. About $450 million has been invested in the project so far.

Mills said she sent a letter to New NECEC President and CEO Thorn Dickinson urging him to stop construction, which occurred within hours. She had certified election results on Nov. 2, with the referendum set to become law Dec. 19.

The court is set to hear on that day the preliminary injunction request by CMP parent Avangrid made in a Nov. 3 filing.

The recently passed initiative “is and remains unconstitutional and violates both state and federal law,” Dickinson said in a Nov. 22 statement. “While the NECEC project will continue to vigorously pursue all legal avenues, the company has decided to temporarily suspend construction … until … the court acts upon our motion for a preliminary injunction.”

He said suspending construction will require layoff of more than 400 state workers.

A spokeswoman for project partner Hydro-Quebec said it plans to file a brief in support of the preliminary injunction by Nov. 24.

However, the Maine Dept. of Environmental Protection Commissioner Melanie Loyzim on Nov. 23 suspended a key project permit, but said it could be restored if the injunction or other legal action is successful.  

The DEP move followed a public hearing on Nov. 22 with testimony from attorneys on both sides over the legality of the corridor, whether the referendum changes permit conditions and justifies pulling it. Corridor supporters urged the agency to let the courts decide.

NECEC's Dickinson said project developers are "disappointed with the decision," noting their efforts "to mitigate the environmental impacts of the project affecting only a thousand acres of land while committing to preserve 40,000 acres."  He added that "there has been no change in the real and serious need for this project to address climate change," which he said the agency "correctly concluded presents the 'single greatest threat to Maine’s natural environment,'" in granting the permit.

Dickinson added that with the voluntary constructin halt, "we see no need ... to suspend the permit. We remain committed to the construction of the corridor." 

Eliza Townsend, Maine Conservation Policy director for the Appalachian Mountain Club. said the group "has long opposed the project, having intervened in the permitting process, where we focused on the effect of habitat fragmentation on wildlife."

A group of Massachusetts lawmakers also have asked Gov. Charlie Baker to cut state ties to the project.