This is a battle that shouldn’t be waged

Sen. Russell Black delivers this week’s Republican radio address

By Senator Russell Black

AUGUSTA – There’s been a years-long battle that has pitted hardworking men and women in Maine against a state government that seems more interested in fish migration than their livelihoods. It’s being waged against the workers at the Sappi Somerset Mill in Skowhegan and its dam operator, Brookfield White Pine Hydro, LLC.

Sen. Russell Black – Franklin

It’s a conflict of which Republicans, including my colleagues Senators Brad Farrin and Scott Cyrway, have been at the forefront. And it could determine the fate of thousands of Mainers.

Hello, I am Senator Russell Black of Franklin County; and it’s my pleasure to join you for this week’s Republican Radio Address.

First, some background.

Brookfield operates the 8.65-megawatt Shawmut hydroelectric dam in the Kennebec River and filed for relicensure from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in January 2020 to continue operating the dam and install a new upstream fish lift. The dam not only provides power but also supplies intake water to the Sappi Mill.

Through this two-and-a-half-year process, which involves the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) as well as FERC, it’s been obvious that our state government has made every effort to either jeopardize or prevent its relicensure.

In fact, Senator Farrin raised serious concerns last year about Maine DMR’s rulemaking process when they wanted to recommend removing two dams in the state to hopefully sway the FERC’s relicensing process regarding Shawmut. He then tried to introduce legislation in 2021 that would have reversed any of the agency’s actions denying the certification – that effort was shot down by Democrats. However, Senator Farrin’s testimony was instrumental in the passage of LD 1979 earlier this year that gave the Legislature more oversight of the process.

So yes, it’s been a struggle for Brookfield; but let’s fast forward to today.

On July 29, the Maine DEP issued a draft denial of Brookfield’s request for the required water quality certification for the dam. Although the denial was without prejudice, meaning they can reapply, this is the second time around as Brookfield had to reapply last October when DEP said they were going to deny the first application. Regardless, the denial jeopardizes the dam, Sappi Mill’s workers as well as the mill itself, and a slew of other interdependent industries.

The mill is one of six major mills remaining in the state. These mills and their overarching forest products sector employ over 31,000 people and contribute an estimated $8.1 billion to our state economy. Any time any of these businesses are jeopardized, it risks a major shock to our state economy.

So if that’s case, what’s really going on here? The latest move by Maine DEP, which prompted responses from both Brookfield and Sappi, simply follows a pattern of tactics to try to remove that dam along with three others from Maine’s waterways. What’s surprising, though, is the hypocrisy behind it.

Democrats for years have been touting their strategy of moving to green, renewable energy and away from fossil fuels. The State has been investing resources to bring solar and wind power generation to our state. Along with those two renewable energy sources, however, are also tidal, thermal and… you guessed it, hydro.

Maine has depended upon clean, sustainable hydroelectric power for centuries. To say that we’re now averse to it and willing to give up the environmental benefits of generating 8.65 megawatts of power through a sustainable source just doesn’t pass the straight-face test. I mean, we’d have to replace that capacity with power generated from fossil fuels if the mill were to even survive.

Yet the hypocrisy with this denial is not even about that. It’s the tradeoff of thousands of jobs to save three fish. Yes, you heard that correctly. In the effort to spare three additional migrating Atlantic salmon per year, our state government has calculated that the benefit of denying the water certification, thereby denying the dam’s relicensing and possible removal altogether, is worth the cost of jobs that would be lost. This move is simply the latest means toward that end.

In its draft denial, Maine DEP claims that Brookfield will likely have to modify their application based on any possible changes to the fish passage system proposed by FERC when they complete their Environmental Impact Statement and issue their license, as well as a biological opinion being conducted by the NMFS. Brookfield in turn said they have no intention of changing the current application and the denial is based on this speculation, not facts required under state law.

The real problem is FERC won’t even issue the license or any proposed changes without the water certification by Maine DEP. The agency knows this and employed this circular logic as a novel delay tactic.

I, along with Sen. Farrin, Sen. Cyrway and the rest of the Republican caucus, will continue our efforts to support Sappi Mill and its workers. We recently sent a letter to our Congressional Delegation asking for assistance at the federal level to expedite the work of the federal agencies.

But at the very least, Maine DEP should rescind its draft order and approve Brookfield’s clean water certification to allow the process to continue. Anything less leaves thousands of Mainers needlessly hanging in the balance.

Again, I am Senator Russell Black of Franklin County. Have a great weekend.

Sen. Russell Black is in his second term and is the Senate Republican Lead for the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee as well as the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee.

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