ELLSWORTH — In a long-running effort to make Black Bear Hydro address fish kills attributed to the energy company’s Union River dam operation, Downeast Salmon Federation has requested that the Department of Environmental Protection issue an immediate cease-and-desist order on turbine operations during the seasonal alewife migration.
The Oct. 15 request cites multiple observations of juvenile alewives being killed in the prior two weeks.
“We’ve been fighting these fish kills for years,” Downeast Salmon Federation biological scientist Brett Ciccotelli said. “We’ve been patient. We want to see some real steps made to make this place safe for native fisheries.”
However, Black Bear Hydro holds that the dam is shut down and has been since a Sept. 24 “fish mortality event,” except for the brief redirecting of water flows, Senior Communications Director Andy Davis said.
“Over the last five years, Black Bear Hydro has voluntarily shut down the generating units multiple times a year from several hours to several days in order to protect migrating fish,” Davis said.
Every spring, up to a million adult alewives flood into the Union River to spawn, Ciccotelli said. Come fall, the juveniles are ready to return to the ocean, but they have to make it past the dam. The fish can be killed or wounded by the turbines or by differences in water pressure. If they go over the dam through a ten-foot opening at the top, created to give the fish a better survival rate than traveling through the turbines, they can fall on the rocks and ledges directly below, according to Ciccotelli.
The cease-and-desist request is based on alleged violations of the 1987 water quality control (WQC) certificate issued for the dam, then under ownership of Bangor Hydro, by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Maine DEP denied Black Bear Hydro’s WQC recertification in March. Without the certification, FERC can’t relicense the hydroelectric operations at Union River. Brookfield Renewable, the parent company of Black Bear Hydro, quickly appealed DEP’s decision, a process that is ongoing.
The DEP denied the dam’s water quality certification because it found “reasonable assurance” that the continued operation would violate water quality standards, finding that the fluctuation in water levels of Leonard and Graham lakes was too large “to support the structure and function of the residential biological community,” according to the DEP decision.
Representatives of Black Bear Hydro have previously said the company would mitigate the fish kill issue through modifications to the fish passage, as outlined in the 1987 water quality control certificate, but Downeast Salmon Federation holds that any measures taken had little effect. Davis disputes that, citing a juvenile alewives downstream migration success rate of over 95 percent. “Furthermore, Black Bear Hydro continues to identify measures to further improve fish passage at the Ellsworth facility and, under the FERC relicensing process, supports the development of a robust fish passage system.”
In addition to the immediate cease-and-desist request, Downeast Salmon Federation also requests that Brookfield “take all possible additional measures to ensure safe, timely and effective downstream fish passage”; continue to do so until it can show the DEP that its operation won’t significantly affect migrating animal species; and be subject to monitoring and reporting requirements “in connection with the 1987 WQC and its interim FERC license.”
Brookfield began its FERC license renewal process in 2015, two years before Black Bear’s 40-year federal license was set to expire. Davis said the company expects a decision by the end of the year and “is considering all options in obtaining a new FERC project license. The sooner a new license is acquired, the sooner we can implement limited drawdown measures and a robust fish passage system.”