CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Supporters of a controversial project that would bring Canadian hydro power to markets in southern New England like to talk about how this would use much cleaner energy than the coal-fired power plants that once dominated the region.
But don't tell that to members of a Canadian tribe, whose traditional territory is dotted with some the dams, reservoirs and power stations that would provide the energy. Rather than green energy, they contend the infrastructure built by Hydro Quebec for power that will go through the proposed Northern Pass project has decimated a salmon fishery they depend on and harmed their traditional hunting grounds.
The Pessamit Innu took their case Thursday to New Hampshire's Site Evaluation Committee, which is hearing public comment on the project and later this year will vote on whether to approve it. Plans call for building a 192-mile transmission line in New Hampshire — from Pittsburg to Deerfield — carrying enough Hydro-Quebec energy to southern New England markets to power about 1.1 million homes.
"This salmon is currently on the verge of extinction," said Pessamit Innu Chief René Simon in a statement read during the hearing. The tribe contends the annual salmon catch has fallen from more than 1,100 in1948 to less than 100 last year.
"Pessamit's right to fish for traditional purposes, although recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada, is simply no longer applicable," said the statement from Simon, who couldn't join other tribal leaders due to illness.
Hydro Quebec denies the tribe's allegation, saying the fishery's decline has more to do with climate change and the tribe's fishing practices.
Until now, much of the focus of the project has been on the route of the transmission lines through New Hampshire that would be built by the utility Eversource.
Supporters say the project would bring much-needed clean energy to the region, which would help alleviate high energy prices and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Opponents say the proposed towers — some as high as 155 feet — would mar scenic views in the northern part of the state, hurt tourism and damage property values in communities in the project's path.
Rather than taking a position on the project in New Hampshire, the tribe chose to direct its ire at Hydro-Quebec and the Canadian government.
It alleges the government forced the tribe from its traditional territories and onto a reservation in the 1800s. It also alleges Hydro-Quebec has been building its networks of dams, power stations and reservoirs on land, lakes and rivers the tribe uses for hunting and fishing. The Pessamit Innu contends it often was not consulted or compensated over these projects.
As a result, hunting grounds were flooded and conditions of the Betsiamites River, where tribe members fish for salmon, have worsened, the tribe claims. The waters have become more turbid, and the tribe blames the two power stations for fluctuating flow rates that sweep away young salmon to their death and destroy their eggs.
"Our action outside of Canada's borders aims to change the course of history or, at least, to make New Englanders aware that 29 percent of the electricity that Hydro-Québec intends to sell was acquired in an immoral and illegal manner, to the detriment of Pessamit," Simon said.
A spokeswoman for Hydro-Quebec, Lynn St-Laurent, insists the company has worked with Pessamit Innu on these projects and provided the tribe with $80 million in compensation during the past 20 years. She insisted complaints about the river conditions are not true, and that the fluctuations on the river are strictly controlled and had been agreed upon with the tribe. She said the power comes from the utility's entire grid that reaches well beyond Pessamit land.
"If representatives of the Pessimit community have concerns or financial demands, we are always willing to listen," said St.-Laurent, adding that they partner with the tribe on scores of development projects including a salmon restoration effort that almost doubled the number of adult salmon to 1,000 from 2002 to 2007.
The tribe, whose trip is being funded in part by the Sierra Club, says it got a lot of support from environmentalists and opponents of the project after holding a series of meeting in New Hampshire and Massachusetts during the past few days. But it remains unclear what impact its concerns will have on the Site Evaluation Committee's decision. In January, the agency denied the Pessamit's request to be a formal party to the state's permit proceeding.