ELLSWORTH — As the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) moves closer to granting a new license for the hydroelectric dam system on the Union River, two issues remain unresolved.
Still a focus of concern are controlling the water level of Graham Lake and providing adequate upstream and downstream passage for eels, alewives and other fish species at the massive dam that forms Leonard Lake.
Last week, about three-dozen concerned residents gathered at the Ellsworth Public Library for a meeting hosted by the Downeast Salmon Federation and the Friends of Graham Lake to find out how they might still affect the agency’s decision.
Brett Ciccotelli, a fisheries biologist for the Downeast Salmon Federation, explained that there was a Jan. 21 deadline to file written comments in response to the Draft Environmental Assessment for the project that FERC issued last November.
He urged concerned residents to write to FERC and provided a form letter that could be used as an example.
“The two most important things,” he said, “are, one, to get the fish passage and two, to stabilize the levels in Graham Lake.”
His message was seconded by Barb Witham, representing the Union Salmon Association, and by Brad Perry, of the Friends of Graham Lake organization.
Currently, Black Bear Hydro Partners — the subsidiary of the Canadian Brookfield Renewable Partners, which operates the two Union River dams — has authority to raise and lower the water in Graham Lake by 11 feet to meet power generation needs.
FERC has recommended limiting those fluctuations to 4½ feet. Friends of Graham Lake would like to see that limit set at 4 feet, Perry said.
FERC also has recommended that Black Bear build better fish passages at the Leonard Lake dam within the next 15 years, but the conservation groups would prefer a five-year period.
Since the recommended license conditions are still in draft form, Ciccotelli said, the commission can loosen those limits if Black Bear objects to them.
“There’s no guarantee what’s in the DEA will be in the license,” he said. “If there’s no noise,” public comment in support of those or even stricter conditions, “FERC can change them.”
Even with the federal deadline in the past, concerned parties may still file comments with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which is considering whether to grant a Clean Waters Act permit for the dam project.
The deadline for public comments in that process is April 7, Ciccotelli said.
Towns also can play a role in shaping any eventual permit, if they participate in the licensing process.
“Elected officials will move if they hear from you,” Ciccotelli said.
At least one audience member expressed skepticism on that point.
“The city doesn’t seem to have the interests of all its residents” in mind, said Todd Little-Siebold of Bayside Road, citing what he described as “closed-door meetings” between the Ellsworth city manager and representatives of Brookfield.