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Leaders In Maine And New Brunswick Get Involved In Search For New Owner For Forest City Dam

Fred Bever
Maine Public
A worker checks on the Forest City dam in this Aug. 2019 photo

Maine's governor and New Brunswick's premier are asking U.S. regulators for permission to find a new owner for an old dam that maintains water levels for the 16,000-acre East Grand Lake – a recreational haven for citizens of both countries. But the dam's current owner is dropping plans to help pay for its future upkeep.

Historically, the 19th-century Forest City dam, which straddles the U.S.-Canada border, contributed to power production for plant operations at a downstream mill in Baileyville, now owned by Woodland Pulp and Paper. But the company has been trying to "surrender" the dam, saying that a new license required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) would raise company costs $6 million over time.

So far, FERC has balked at ending the re-licensing requirement. Without a way out, Woodland Pulp and Paper could abandon operations and maintenance of the U.S. side of the dam, which would result in a drawdown of East Grand Lake's water by as much as six feet ⁠— leaving area residences, lodges and ecosystems high and dry.

Now Maine’s Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs are entering the fray.

"I mean it shouldn't be a problem of great difficulty it should be pretty straightforward," says Higgs. He has a strong personal connection to the tiny community of Forest City at the center of this international conundrum — he grew up there.

"One of my first jobs was working at Wheaton Lodge,” he says. “At that time visas weren't necessarily a big issue. I was like 15-years old and I'd come home from school, I'd walk across to Wheaton's lodge, and I'd put the ice buckets up for the fishermen and build fires on in the camps, so when they came in from the lake the camps were warm and they had ice for the drinks."

Earlier this year, the Mills administration surprised many attending a FERC meeting in nearby Danforth by backing away from a proposal, first floated by former Governor Paul LePage's administration, in which the state would take over the dam.

Instead, says Tim Peabody, deputy commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and wildlife, the state is now focused on an agreement with New Brunswick, which attempts to meet several goals.

One is to create a new model for managing water flows from the lake in a way that would preserve its ecological and recreational values, but that would also substantially reduce the dam's contributions to power generation downstream — thus avoiding FERC's costly re-licensing requirements.

"The solution, as outlined by the governor and the premier, is to take it out from under FERC licensing... to take it as close as you can to run-of-the river."

Peabody says the state and province will also work to identify a third party to own and manage the dam.

"Of course there's going to be a cost, and whether it's shared by Maine, New Brunswick, third-party owner, that's what the question is."

One group Peabody says might be the right third party is a nonprofit that includes residents from both countries, called the Chiputneticook Lakes International Conservancy.

But "that would be news to us I think," says David Townsend, a Canadian who now winters in Florida, is president of the conservancy.

The Chiputneticook Lakes International Conservancy earlier this year floated the idea of taking over the dam, but whether the terms of what Maine, New Brunswick and federal regulators might propose would be feasible, he says, is unknown.

"Would we have to raise money ourselves for all the expenses?” says Townsend. “I mean lake associations have been sunk by extensive expenses over time for taking over dams, and this is a rock crib dam as opposed to a concrete dam, and it needs regular maintenance to make sure that everything is stable."

And those costs could be higher than once thought, because Woodland Pulp and Paper,- which is owned by a Hong Kong based conglomerate, is dropping an offer to help out. Previously, the company said it would operate and maintain the dam as long as ownership and FERC licensing expenses were not part of the picture. But, according to company spokesperson Scott Beal, that offer is now off the table.

"I don't expect that we'll be involved financially, but if there are some other things that we can do with some of the past hydro-modeling that we've done, if any of that is of any value, of course we would be very supportive," says Beal.

Premier Higgs says he is disappointed by that withdrawal of support and will need to consider its ramifications. A spokesperson for Maine's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife says the administration remains committed to the principles outlined in the joint letter to FERC.

A FERC spokesperson had no comment beyond saying the agency would review any proposals it receives.