ELLSWORTH — Eels heading for the sea have slithered to the forefront in the fight over the application by Brookfield White Pine Hydro LLC to relicense the Union River Dam that forms Leonard Lake in Ellsworth. Brookfield White Pine is the apparent corporate successor to Black Bear Hydro Partners, LLC, the longtime operator of the dam.
Last week, according to Downeast Salmon Federation Executive Director Dwayne Shaw, volunteers searching the banks of the Union River below the dam found about a half-dozen dead adult American eels along shore and another on a sandbank in the middle of the river. According to Shaw, the eels, migrating to the sea from the Union River watershed above the dam, showed evidence of blade strikes from the hydroelectric turbines in the dam.
The discovery of the dead eels followed by a few weeks Shaw’s discovery of several dead alewives below the dam. According to a complaint the conservation group filed early last month with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the alewives, like the eels on their annual seaward migration from Graham Lake and its tributaries, showed injuries consistent with having passed through the turbines rather than through the outward fish passage the dam operator’s license requires it to provide.
Within days of filing its complaint with FERC, the Downeast Salmon Federation received a copy of a “weekly fishway and fish passage report” Black Bear filed with the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
According to that report, on the day the dead alewives were discovered, a pump designed to create a current that would attract fish away from the turbines failed.
“Getting the pump back on-line is priority and a crew is currently working to make the repairs,” Black Bear said in its report.
One day after that report was filed, Brookfield spokesman Vanessa Pilotte offered a response to the complaint to FERC.
“I got confirmation from our operations that we are respecting our Comprehensive Fisheries Management Plan,” Pilotte said in an email.
The pump failure appears to be a familiar problem.
In March of this year, reporting on another apparent downstream fishway pump failure, Black Bear said it was installing a backup pump that could be switched on “to quickly return the fishway to proper operation should the currently installed (and now repaired) pump fail.”
During the summer, Black Bear filed an extensive study of the dam’s environmental impact on the Union River watershed. FERC ordered the study before the company will be allowed to complete its application for a new 30-year license for the dam.
Responses to the study as filed were tepid at best.
The NOAA Fisheries Service said it found that “several studies were not adequately conducted,” and that “all studies must be completed per the study plan determination and prior to license application.”
DMR filed a six-page letter with FERC detailing its objections to the study. Among its concerns, “the downstream passage facilities have never been tested for their overall ability to pass fish safely and effectively.”
According to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the information contained in Black Bear’s draft application “is unclear and, therefore, at this time we are unable to determine that the project meets” Maine’s required water quality standards.
“We continue to operate the Ellsworth hydro facility with a commitment to protect our employees, the public and the natural environment while producing clean and renewable energy for New England,” Pilotte said in her email.