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Future of Shawmut Dam, Sappi mill remain uncertain

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The future of the Shawmut Dam remains in question. Following a draft ruling that announced the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) intention to deny Brookfield White Pine Hydro’s application to renew its license to operate the Shawmut Dam, Brookfield withdrew its application. 

The company has announced its intention to file a new application within 60 days. The DEP would have a year after receiving the application to make a decision. 

Should the DEP deny Brookfield’s second application, the decision would likely lead to the closure of Sappi’s Somerset paper mill. The dam’s long-term survival is uncertain, but it is licensed until January 31, 2022 as a result of a one-year extension issued by the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC) on December 11, 2018.

Brookfield is currently seeking to relicense operation of the dam with FERC. The agency has said that it will factor the DEP’s decision into its own, which means a denial from DEP could result in a relicensing denial from FERC and removal of the dam. Sappi has said that removal of the dam would lower the water level of the Kennebec River, making it impossible for the mill to operate. 

Brookfield first filed an application for water quality certification (WQC) to relicense and continue operating the Shawmut Hydroelectric Project on August 28, 2020. 

In its draft rejection of the application, DEP claims continued operation of the dam would not allow a sufficient number of Atlantic salmon to pass through it. Though the rejection found the water quality to be of suitable use for drinking water and to support recreational activities, it ruled the discharge from the dam made the water an unsuitable habitat to support fish and other aquatic life. 

As part of its WQC application, Brookfield proposed to build a new upstream fish lift and fish passage flume to aid the passage of various species of fish, but particularly Atlantic salmon, upstream. Since 2009, Atlantic salmon in the Gulf of Maine Distinct Population Segment of the Kennebec River have been federally listed as endangered. FERC rejected a previous species protection plan submitted by Brookfield in July of 2020 following input from several federal environmental agencies, the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and DEP.

Brookfield estimated its fish lift would lead to a survival rate of 96% for Atlantic salmon passing through it. It also proposed to study the effectiveness of its fish lift and flume for three years and implement minor structural and operational changes as needed if it did not meet performance standards, as is required by the National Marine Fisheries Services.

But the DMR says that number isn’t good enough. The DMR sets a “minimum goal” of a 99% survival rate for Atlantic salmon passing through the dam. Anything below this likely means the waters around the dam will be “of insufficient quality to support self-sustaining runs of these indigenous species and would preclude recovery of the endangered Atlantic salmon” in the region, according to the DMR.

As part of its denial, the DEP cites the DMR’s findings and concludes Brookfield has not demonstrated its proposed fish lift will restore spawning and rearing habitats upstream, or demonstrated its downstream passage facilities will meet performance standards necessary to sustain Atlantic salmon populations.

That decision has already proved controversial. 

The DMR previously put forward a plan to revise its river management that would have required dams to improve fish passage methods and allow more fish, especially Atlantic salmon, to pass through. The plan, which had Gov. Janet Mills’ support, likely would have resulted in the removal of four dams on the Kennebec River, including the Shawmut Dam.

The DMR was forced to abandon the plan after being sued by Brookfield in Kennebec County Superior Court. While the state was conducting a legal review of its proposed new rules, it discovered it had developed the plan under a law that did not give it the authority to implement the proposed changes.

That DMR’s recommendations played an important role in the DEP’s decision to deny Brookfield’s renewal application has led some to the conclusion that politics played a role. 

Sen. Brad Farrin (R-Somerset) has been an outspoken critic of the administration’s efforts to close down the Shawmut Dam. Farrin, whose district includes Sappi, accused Mills of being determined to remove the dam.

“After Mills’ Department of Marine Resources failed to force the removal of at least two dams on the river through an illegal rulemaking last spring, she turned to her Department of Environmental Protection which recently issued a draft denial of a ‘water quality certification’ for Shawmut,” Farrin said in a press release

Sappi alleges the DMR’s goal of a 99% survival rate for Atlantic salmon passing through a fish lift is unattainable. 

Sappi forwarded the DEP’s draft denial of Brookfield’s application to Acheron Engineering for review. William Ball, the president of the group, called the 99% survival rate a “sham intended to result in dam removal.”

He noted that the 96% survival rating Brookfield estimates will result from installation of a new fish ladder is in line with rates that have been accepted by the DEP for other dams in Maine. 

“The MDEP must establish standards for any license, permit, or WQC that are reasonable and based on sound science. The MDEP has not used a reasonable and science based standard in this instance, and has not acted consistently with its prior practice or the practice of fisheries agencies,” Ball wrote. 

Jim Brooks, Sappi’s environmental manager, appeared on WVOM’s George Hale Ric Tyler Show on August 20 and said removing the dam would drop the water levels in the Kennebec River from 20 feet to 4 or 6 feet and will decrease the width of the river by several hundred feet. This would leave the mill’s water withdrawal and wastewater discharge infrastructure out of the water and would likely result in its closure. Brooks estimated this would result in the loss of over 700 jobs.

Before its WQC application was denied, Sappi contracted with the TRC Environmental Corporation to study alternative solutions that would allow them to draw water in from shallow sources, should the dam be shut. TRC found that alternate solutions would require Sappi to “design, permit, and construct major modifications to its water intake and diffuser systems, and it is entirely possible that no such system could be designed, permitted, and constructed to provide sufficient water to meet the mill’s demand.”

Should the mill close, Maine will lose both jobs and property tax revenue. Fairfield is estimated to lose $389,000 annually in property taxes without the Sappi mill.

But the uncertain future of the dam may also be jeopardizing the same fish that DMR and DEP are trying to protect. Brookfield’s plans to install the $15 million fish ladder are on hold. The company will not invest the money if the dam is going to be shut down. 

That means improvements to the dam designed to help fish navigate the dam and improve their survival rate will not be made until the government makes a final decision about the dam’s future.

Photo: qnr, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

About Katherine Revello

Katherine Revello is a reporter for The Maine Wire. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Maine. Her writing has appeared in Reason, The Washington Examiner, and various other publications. Got news tips? Contact Katherine at krevello@mainepolicy.org.

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