Conservation groups take Ellsworth dam fight to DEP

ELLSWORTH — Two conservation organizations have opened another front in their relicensing battle with the owners of the Ellsworth hydropower dam.

At issue is how to protect the Union River ecosystem.

Late last month, the Downeast Salmon Federation and the Conservation Law Foundation filed a joint request with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection for a public hearing on the application of Black Bear Hydro Partners LLC for a state Water Quality Certification for the Ellsworth Hydropower Project, which includes the dam that forms Leonard Lake.

Little more than one year ago, Black Bear filed the DEP application in conjunction with its proceedings before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) seeking to relicense the dam and its attendant hydroelectric generation facility.

In an April 22 letter to Kathy Davis Howatt, hydropower coordinator for DEP’s Bureau of Land Resources, the groups claim that Black Bear’s plan for operation of the relicensed dam “presents an increased risk to the Union River’s water quality and the habitat of endangered and threatened species.”

They also claim that issuing a Water Quality Certificate will “directly affect the interests” of the organizations’ members, “including their recreational use of the Union River and their interest in restoring and preserving its biodiversity.”

The two groups say that they are acting on their own behalf as well as for a group of 14 organizations as diverse as The Friends of Graham Lake, the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries and the Maine Elver Fishermen Association.

Black Bear Hydro began the process to relicense the Union River facilities some six years ago. It filed a formal license application late in 2015. Last November, FERC issued a preliminary decision, ruling that “licensing the Ellsworth Project as proposed by Black Bear Hydro, with the additional staff-recommended measures, would be best adapted to a plan for improving the Union River Basin.”

On April 11, Black Bear submitted a revised plan to FERC that, among other measures, reduced the amount it would be allowed to lower water levels in Graham Lake to roughly 6 feet. The original plan allowed for a drawdown of nearly 11 feet.

Black Bear needs a new Water Quality Certification from DEP to renew its operating license with the FERC. The license covers two dams — the Leonard Lake dam, which generates hydropower with turbines at its western end, and the upper Graham Lake dam, which controls water flow to the downstream turbines.

The federal license for the dams was last renewed in 1987. Black Bear, owned by the Toronto-based Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners, is seeking to renew the license for 40 years, until 2057.

In their letter, the Downeast Salmon Federation and the Conservation Law Foundation argue that DEP needs to hear expert evidence on the potential impact of Black Bear’s plan from organization staff and members with “decades of experience” relating to the quality of Maine’s waters. Black Bear’s expertise “is the operation of the hydroelectric dam facility” that it operates “without, or with limited regard” to its environmental impacts, the letter stated.

With that in mind, the letter concludes “our organizations believe that a public hearing would assist the department” in evaluating Black Bear’s application, “resolving the credible conflicting technical information and giving the public confidence” in DEP’s ultimate decision.

No date for a decision on the hearing request had been made public as of late Tuesday afternoon.

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]
Stephen Rappaport

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