By Sen. Brad Farrin
For almost everything in nature and the environment, the key is balance. A balance of warm sun and regular rain makes things grow. Trees balance the air we breathe by turning carbon dioxide into oxygen. Likewise, we must strike a reasonable balance between human activity and its impact on the natural world.
Recently, the discussion regarding hydroelectric dams on the Kennebec River exposed a shift in state government’s position that would dramatically upset the balance between the generation of clean hydroelectric power and preservation of Atlantic salmon on the Kennebec River.
Environmental groups, in particular the Natural Resources Council of Maine, seek to establish new policies that almost entirely favor the fish over humans—specifically, complete removal of four major, hydroelectric dams on the Kennebec River.
This action would have a devastating effect on humans in the region in a number of ways. Reduction of our capacity to produce clean, hydro power would be harmful to the environment, lead to higher electricity cost for ratepayers, and cost local towns in which the dams are located millions in property taxes each year.
The greatest impact to the human side of the balance would be the loss of jobs. This not only includes the 100+ employees who work at these facilities, but also the SAPPI paper mill in Skowhegan, which the owners have said would be forced to close if the Shawmut Dam is removed.
Beyond the loss of 725 mill jobs and hundreds of others that depend on the mill, the Town of Skowhegan would lose its first, second, and sixth biggest property tax payers in SAPPI, Brookfield, and the Maine Water Company, altogether accounting for more than $1.5 million.
In the meantime, the owner of the dams, Brookfield Renewable Partners, is in the process of spending tens of millions of dollars to build state-of-art fish passageways to allow Atlantic salmon and other fish to pass above and below the dams to reach their traditional spawning grounds. This expensive investment would help to maintain a balance between the needs of both the fish and humans.
Though state government is obligated to represent all of its citizens, the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) recently attempted to destroy the dam vs. fish balance by amending a management plan to include the removal of two dams and the consideration of removing two more on the Kennebec. DMR carried out this process in violation of state law and had to temporarily postpone its efforts to target these dams.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) regulates hydropower in the United States including whether these facilities should be relicensed. Across the U.S., FERC has a ton of relevant experience. It currently regulates more than 2,500 dams, 102 of them here in Maine.
Recently, FERC released a draft of their 201 page environmental assessment as part of the process to re-license the Shawmut Dam on the Kennebec River. Weighing in on whether it should re-issue the license, DMR made 18 different formal recommendations to the commission. FERC ruled that seven of DMR’s recommendations were not even within the scope of the law, and it chose not to follow another five for various reasons, meaning 12 of DMR’s 18 recommendations were not relevant or reasonable in FERC’s extensive experience.
Through its actions regarding these dams, DMR has shown that it does not seek a balance of the interests of all of the Maine people that it is obligated to represent, but instead has positioned itself squarely with the zero-tolerance, no-balance, position of extreme environmental groups.
Thankfully for Maine people, there is a federal agency that continues to make its decisions based on science and not politics. In its draft assessment, FERC framed the reality of humans vs. fish this way: “Brookfield’s proposal to continue to operate (Shawmut Dam) in a run-of-river mode…would result in infrequent and minimal disturbances to aquatic and riparian habitat.”
Despite over-the-top rhetoric from extreme environmental groups and their newly-aligned partners at DMR, it appears that the Kennebec dams may be safe from removal thanks to more reasonable regulators at FERC.
Sen. Brad Farrin of Norridgewock, represents District 3 in the Maine State Senate.