ELLSWORTH — The Board of Environmental Protection last week upheld the state’s denial of a water quality certification for Black Bear Hydro Partners’ Ellsworth and Graham Lake dams, leaving their future in limbo.
The Department of Environmental Protection had previously denied the key certification that is needed for the federal relicensing process of the dams, but Brookfield Renewable, Black Bear Hydro’s parent company, appealed the decision.
The Ellsworth dam forms the Leonard Lake riverine impoundment and the Graham Lake dam forms the Graham Lake storage reservoir.
The DEP denied the certification in March 2020 “because there is a reasonable assurance” that continued operation of the dams “will violate applicable state water quality standards” in both Graham Lake and in the Union River above the Ellsworth dam.
The Board of Environmental Protection stood by the DEP’s decision and voted to deny the appeal and deny a further public hearing on the matter. Only board member James Parker voted against the measures.
Black Bear Hydro argued that Leonard Lake, the body of water above the power generating dam on the Union River, was wrongly classified, giving it the wrong set of standards for the company to meet. The company also contended that the DEP’s finding that Graham Lake and the Union River wouldn’t meet habitat and aquatic life criteria was not based on all of the data and was incorrect.
Without the certification, it will be virtually impossible for Black Bear Hydro to get its licenses approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Sharon Newman, who was representing Black Bear Hydro at the Board of Environmental Protection’s meeting last Thursday, said that if Lake Leonard were going to be kept at the class that the DEP maintained it is, “decommissioning of the project, including the dams, would be a likely result.”
In a statement, Brookfield Renewable Senior Director Andy Davis said the company will continue try to find a way to secure a Water Quality Certification.
“Despite the (Board of Environmental Protection) ruling upholding the DEP decision, Black Bear Hydro will continue to pursue alternative paths to secure a WQC for the Ellsworth Hydroelectric Project to ensure continued generation of renewable energy for the long-term.”
During last Thursday’s meeting, DEP staff did say that Black Bear Hydro could submit another application.
The project has a generating capacity of 8,900 kilowatts and operates to provide electricity for public consumption. The Ellsworth dam was completed in 1907 and the Graham Lake dam was completed in 1924. They were first licensed by the federal government in 1977 and the current 30-year license expired in 2018.
Several groups urged the board to uphold the decision, including the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Downeast Salmon Federation. The watershed and coastal waters of the Union River have been part of the tribe’s homelands, said Ed Bassett, a GIS/multimedia technician with the tribe.
“Affirmation of the MDEP decision is a significant step in achieving our goal of a healthy fisheries providing safe, timely, and effective passage of sea-run fish in the Union River and providing ecosystem connectivity and restoration and finally providing tribal members with the nutritional and spiritual sustenance so important to present and future generations,” he wrote in his testimony.