DEP denies permit critical to Ellsworth dam license renewal

ELLSWORTH — The Maine Department of Environmental Protection last Friday denied the application by Black Bear Hydro Partners for a Water Quality Certification required for the relicensing and continued operation of its dams on the Union River.

DEP’s denial was based on results of water tests submitted to DEP by Brookfield as part of its application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for renewal of the licenses for dams on Graham Lake and Leonard Lake. 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.

Among its findings, DEP determined that the fluctuation in water levels in Graham Lake was too large “to support the structure and function of the residential biological community” — not just the fish that inhabit the lake but also insects and other elements of the aquatic habitat.

The state’s action may delay Brookfield’s application to FERC, but the company isn’t folding its tent and going away.

“Black Bear Hydro, a subsidiary of Brookfield Renewable, is actively evaluating the best path forward in obtaining a Water Quality Certification for the Ellsworth Project,” Miranda Kessel, the company’s manager for stakeholder relations, said in an email Monday morning. “While we recognize this is a temporary setback, we will continue working to reach the end goal of renewing Ellsworth’s FERC license.”

One way the company may try to accomplish that end is through the courts.

In a statement released last week, Dwayne Shaw, executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation said, “Sadly, we can expect Brookfield to appeal this decision in state court, and potentially ask FERC to intervene to allow Brookfield to prolong the process and delay the time when Brookfield must stop status quo operations.”

In reaching its decision, DEP noted several deficiencies in the way Black Bear/Brookfield has operated the Ellsworth hydroelectric project and its plans for continued operation.

The so-called “Ellsworth Project” has an enormous environmental footprint, with a drainage area of about 547 square miles. The dam impounds a small portion of the Union River, forming the mile-long Leonard Lake, which has a surface area of 90 acres at its normal maximum elevation with about 4.4 miles of shoreline. Ten-mile-long Graham Lake has a normal maximum surface area of approximately 10,000 acres and 80 miles of shoreline, excluding islands. According to the Brookfield application, Graham Lake stores about 5.4 billion cubic feet of water.

Brookfield keeps water levels in the lake between 93.4 feet and 104.2 feet above sea level with water drawn down in summer and fall, and sometimes more extensively in winter months, to power the hydroelectric turbines at the Ellsworth dam as well as providing significant flood control benefits.

State law requires that the waters of Graham Lake and the Union River meet certain standards necessary to support a wide variety of aquatic life and human usage. DEP has established a number of measurable scientific criteria to determine whether those requirements are met.

“We as a state and a society determined these standards are necessary,” Brett Ciccotelli, a biologist for the Downeast Salmon Federation, said Monday. “The vital signs aren’t being met because of the two dams and the way they’re operated.”

“Maine DEP did the right thing here,” Shaw said. “The DEP should be applauded for scrupulously following Maine law to ensure that our rivers and lakes are protected. Brookfield left DEP no choice but to deny certification, since Brookfield’s own tests and our documentation demonstrated these water quality violations.”

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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