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A new bill would require a legislative review of state water quality rules

Kennebec River Dam Skowhegan, Maine
Jimmy Emerson, DVM
Brookfield spokeswoman Miranda Kessel says the fourth dam, called Weston, will continue to operate, because studies show the Salmon stand a better chance of survival passing through the turbines than when they spill over the top of that dam.

A bill that would change the state's water quality rules is pitting the Maine Senate's top Democrat against the administration of Gov. Janet Mills', in a dispute over a Kennebec River dam, a mill that relies on it, and endangered Atlantic salmon.

Senate President Troy Jackson, an Allagash Democrat, told members of the Legislature's natural resources committee that state regulators are setting standards for protecting Kennebec River ecosystems so high that they could force the removal of the Shawmut dam and others — or at the least require installation of costly fishways. And that, he says, could force the shutdown of a SAPPI mill in Somerset that gets its water supply from an impoundment upstream of the dam.

It's a mill that directly employs more than 700 people.

"I think everyone would clearly agree that the only way you're going to get 100% restoration Atlantic salmon and the natural aspect is the removal of those dams," Jackson says. "But I feel like that is a very important and worthy goal, I feel our job in the Legislature is to provide a balance, some balance between the environment and economy."

Jackson's bill would require a legislative review of state water quality rules. And when federal regulators consider dam license renewals for compliance with the Endangered Species Act, the bill appears to bar the state from seeking water standards stricter than those set by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The bill is supported by dam owner Brookfield Energy, Sappi North America, labor unions, the state Chamber of Commerce and numerous mill-town lawmakers. But a dozen environmental groups lined up to oppose it. Jeffrey Reardon of Trout Unlimited says Maine should maintain its purview over its own waters.

He says the state Department of Environmental Protection's rules for dam removals explicitly include a public benefits test that protects riverside businesses.

"And I will tell you having been in the position of applying under this permit, that people applying for permits take it very seriously, and if I made one with a project that was going to put 700 mill workers out of business in Somerset County I would expect DEP to reject that proposal unless we made good allowances for making the mil whole," Reardon says.

And the DEP itself opposes the bill. An agency official says it's bad policy to give up state authority over ecosystem management for the 30-50 year period of a federal dam license, and that the measure also may violate the state constitution's bar on delegating legislative authority to the feds. The committee could vote on the bill next week.

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.