The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has suspended the construction license for the New England Clean Energy Connect project, the latest step in a battle that has been fought in the courts and at the ballot box.

In a ruling issued Tuesday, DEP Commissioner Melanie Loyzim said all construction work is to stop until the project’s developer either wins its legal fight over a public land lease in the project’s path or its constitutional challenge to the recently passed referendum question or if a court issues an injunction allowing work to continue while the legal maneuvering takes place.

Loyzim’s ruling settles, at least temporarily, a controversy over NECEC’s decision to continue work on the $1 billion transmission corridor after roughly 60% of Maine voters approved a referendum question designed to block the corridor. NECEC officials filed a suit challenging the constitutionality of the referendum the day after the election and said it would continue construction work while that challenge was pending.

But critics cried foul and said the move was a direct challenge to the will of the voters. NECEC eventually said last week that it would suspend construction voluntarily after a request by Gov. Janet Mills.

The DEP has been under mounting pressure for months from project opponents to suspend the license it issued for the project and shut down construction while the legal and regulatory challenges play out.

The agency held a hearing Monday Nov. 22 whether to suspend NECEC’s permit to build the transmission corridor that is designed to carry electricity generated by hydroelectric generators in Canada to a New England transmission grid hub in Lewiston and ultimately to electric customers in Massachusetts, who are footing the bill for the project.

At the hearing, opponents of the project said that the pending law adopted by voters should be assumed to be constitutional unless and until a court decides otherwise. But the developer noted that the law won’t legally take effect until Dec. 19 and the voluntary suspension meant the DEP wouldn’t need to act until the court rules on NECEC’s request for a preliminary injunction to keep the law from going into force.

But Loyzim’s ruling suggests that there was no almost no way for her not to suspend the license to build the project.

“To not suspend the license would allow: continued construction in the region where such construction will shortly be banned; continued construction of other Project segments without a reasonable expectation that those segments will ever be part of an alternative route and energized to fulfill the original purpose of the Project; and construction of a type of project that shortly will not be authorized for lack of having received 2/3 approval of both houses of the Legislature,” she wrote.

Loyzim also said that the voluntary suspension isn’t legally binding or enforceable by the DEP and so her department couldn’t depend on it stopping work.

“So long as the license is suspended, all construction must stop,” she said, although her order allows NECEC to “stabilize” the sites where it has been working and to finish work that would otherwise pose a safety hazard to workers or the public.

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