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Conservation Groups Call For Full Environmental Analysis As Kennebec River Dam Comes Up For Relicensing

The Shawmut Dam in Benton.
The Shawmut Dam in Benton.

Regional businesses are squaring off against conservation groups over the federal relicensing of a 100-year-old dam on the Kennebec River in Benton.

The Shawmut hydroelectric dam is seen as an economic lifeline by some, and by others as a barrier to recovery of endangered Atlantic salmon.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is soliciting comments on potential environmental consequences of re-licensing the dam for the next 30 years, and conservation groups say FERC's assessment is cursory at best.

"FERC's analysis falls woefully short of what good science requires," says Sean Mahoney, who directs the Maine chapter of the Conservation Law Foundation.

That's one of several organizations that believe the Shawmut and three other dams owned by Brookfield Renewables taken together pose an insurmountable challenge for salmon trying to make it upstream to spawning grounds.

Mahoney points out that even federal scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service say that FERC's analysis is inadequate.

"And where it falls short, writ large, is the acceptance that fish passage is going to be enough to meet the requirements of not only the Federal Power Act but also the Endangered Species Act," he says.

The conservation groups say a more rigorous analysis — a full environmental impact statement — would demonstrate that all four dams should be removed.

It's a prospect that's uniting opposition from the upper Kennebec River Valley businesses community.

"We are not anti-fish — we are pro-fish as well," says Kimberly Lindlof, president of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce.

Lindlof says that the Shawmut dam can be modified to allow passage for salmon and aid their recovery. And that can be done, she says, without draining an impoundment just upstream that a Sappi paper mill — and its hundreds of jobs — depend on for water supply.

"We very much support the efforts of Sappi and its continued growth. But I think the other thing being missed here is that dam is not new — it's been providing clean energy not just to Sappi but the entire region for a hundred years. And we don't want to lose that. To replace that would be a lot of solar panels," she says.

Removing all four dams, she adds, could harm waterfront businesses, property values and tax valuations up and down the river.

Maine's Department of Marine Resources said on Monday that like the conservation groups, it supports a full environmental impact statement review process.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.