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Mills Vows To Balance Conservation, Business Interests In Kennebec River Dam Dispute

Janet Mills
Robert F. Bukaty/AP
/
AP
Gov. Janet Mills speaks to reporters, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020 at the State House in Augusta, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Gov. Janet Mills is vowing to protect a Sappi paper mill on the Kennebec River, and the 700-plus jobs it provides, while also seeking protections for endangered Atlantic salmon at a nearby dam that the mill relies on for water.

The owners of four hydroelectric dams on the river, Brookfield Renewables, is embroiled in a fight over how to improve the salmon's ability to get to prime upstream spawning grounds.

The dispute has drawn in conservationists, waterfront municipalities and businesses, lawmakers and the Skowhegan mill, which takes its water from an impoundment just upstream of the hundred-year-old Shawmut dam.

In a letter published in the Morning Sentinel, Mills condemned Brookfield for "fear-mongering" on the issue. She says she will not allow the mill to close, and that protecting jobs and the salmon can go hand in hand, possibly by construction of what's called a "nature-like fishway," a relatively recent technology that has shown some initial success on the Penobscot River.

But Brookfield's proposals so far have stopped short of that, relying instead on more traditional fish elevators that conservationists say won't adequately protect the species.

"The best solution is to remove all four of Brookfield's dams," says Nick Bennett, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Bennett says a nature-like fishway, while still unproven, is worth consideration. And he says that even if the Shawmut dam is removed and the impoundment drawn down, there could be other ways for Sappi to get water to the plant.

"We would like the problems that Sappi is claiming to have with its water intake and maybe its outfall pipe too, to get a much more thorough and calm evaluation," he says. "That said, we completely understand that whatever solution we have that works for fish needs to work for Sappi too."

In an interview last week, one Sappi executive said third-party engineering studies have shown that alternatives to the existing impoundment are at best cost prohibitive and, at worst, unworkable.

In an email statement on Thursday, a Sappi spokesman says the company is "cautiously optimistic" that the state and Brookfield can reach a speedy resolution.

In an email statement, a Brookfield spokesman says the company was pleased that Mills asked for a meeting, but added the governor’s standards for fish passage are unrealistic.

Regarding the possibility of a “nature-like” fishway, the spokesman called it a “late proposal” that had not received substantive review but did not say whether Brookfield would consider the alternative.