The Ellsworth hydroelectric facility in 2019. FILE PHOTO

Dam relicensing remains in limbo

ELLSWORTH As Black Bear Hydro, the energy company in charge of the Ellsworth and Graham Lake dams, awaits the appeals process for its federal licensing renewal, the question arises: what happens if a new license is never issued?

“If the [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] makes a determination to not issue a new license, this would initiate the decommissioning process,” Black Bear Senior Communications Director Andy Davis told The American. 

Black Bear Hydro was denied its water quality certification by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) last March. The certification is required as part of the energy company’s years-long effort to renew its federal license to operate the dams.

Black Bear Hydro’s parent company, Brookfield Renewable, has appealed the denial of the certification.

Consequently, the license renewal remains in limbo as the appeals process unfolds.

According to the DEP decision, the application was denied “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.

Davis said the energy company wants a conditional approval of its license application and would implement necessary measures for its water quality certification.

“[The] denial was based upon a lack of information demonstrating that aquatic habitat would be supported by [Black Bear Hydro’s] proposed 5.7-foot drawdown,” he said. 

“A major sticking point on this issue is the Maine DEP changing the classification of Leonard [Lake] during the process. This seems politically driven and makes it difficult to meet standards that change during the middle of a process.”

Davis said that the classification change to a Class B waterway makes Leonard Lake, the body of water above the power-generating dam on the Union River, subject to dissolved oxygen standards. He said that due to the nature of the lake, these standards cannot be met. 

In a Dec. 3 opinion piece in The American, Tom Uncher, vice president of Brookfield Renewable’s New England operations, stated that removing the dams is a possibility. 

“While the relicensing process was expected to conclude nearly three years ago, the path forward remains uncertain and, absent a balanced solution, removal of the Ellsworth and Graham [Lake] dams may be an unfortunate but necessary outcome,” he wrote. 

The relicensing process has taken eight years, Uncher wrote. Davis said that if decommissioning were to take place, it would be another years-long process, which would include Black Bear Hydro submitting a proposal to FERC to surrender its dam licensing.

“FERC will review the surrender application to ensure that safety and environmental concerns are addressed before allowing the project to be removed from federal jurisdiction,” Davis said. 

This process also includes consulting with stakeholders and the public. 

In the last two decades, several Maine dams have been removed.

A July 17, 2019, article in the Portland Press Herald detailed the removal of two headwalls on the Presumpscot River in Westbrook. The free-flowing water over Upper Saccarappa Falls was a welcome site for many conservationists, especially due to the reopened upstream passage for sea-run fish. 

On the other hand, for communities along East Grand Lake in Forest City along the Canadian border, the potential decommissioning of the dam built on the St. Croix River would be devastating to the lakefront property owners and recreational users.

According to a Aug. 27, 2019, Maine Public report, the 6-foot drawdown levels if the St. Croix dam was decommissioned would result in mudflats and a dramatically altered way of life.

Brett Ciccotelli, a biological scientist with the Downeast Salmon Federation (DSF), said finding solutions for the Ellsworth and Graham lake dams will require compromise.

In conjunction with DSF’s mission to conserve sea-run fish and their habitats in eastern Maine, Ciccotelli said the organization is a “community-based conservation group” and that people’s needs and interests within the community have to be considered.

“If salmon matter to people and Graham Lake matters to people, there’s a way to make it work,” he said. 

“We want these rivers to be healthy, we want these projects to succeed,” Ciccotelli added.

Ciccotelli said water quality at Leonard Lake needs to be improved before Black Bear Hydro’s license is renewed. He also said that better fish passages should be incorporated. 

While this license renewal process has been going on for several years, the discussion over fish passage is nothing new. 

An article published in The American in 1919 reported, “The right of Ellsworth to demand that a fishway be built in the Union River dam, has been demonstrated within the past few days. There are many alewives now in the river, seeking a way to fresh water to spawn. They are being dipped every day at the foot of the dam, which they cannot get over.”

Rebecca Alley

Rebecca Alley

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Rebecca is the Schoodic-area reporter and covers the towns of Eastbrook, Franklin, Hancock, Lamoine, Sorrento, Sullivan, Waltham, Winter Harbor and Trenton. She lives in Ellsworth with her husband and baby boy who was joyously welcomed in June 2020. Feel free to send tips and story ideas to [email protected]

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