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LePage, Mills trade barbs over dams and paper mill jobs

Former Gov. Paul LePage speaks Monday during a press conference in Augusta about the future of the Shawmut Dam and paper mill jobs.
Kevin Miller
Maine Public
Former Gov. Paul LePage speaks Monday during a press conference in Augusta about the future of the Shawmut Dam and paper mill jobs.

A battle over a dam in the Kennebec River has now become a campaign issue in Maine's gubernatorial race as former Republican Gov. Paul LePage accuses his opponent this November of putting hundreds of paper mill jobs at risk.

But a representative for Gov. Janet Mills accused her predecessor of “scare tactics and said the Democratic incumbent is committed to preserving both jobs and endangered fish.

For several years now, the owner of the Shawmut dam located between Skowhegan and Fairfield has been fighting with environmentalists and the state of Maine over how best to protect endangered Atlantic salmon and other fish in the Kennebec River. In a sign that the post-Labor Day campaign season has officially begun, LePage and about a dozen supporters gathered in Augusta on Monday to accuse Mills of dishonesty when it comes protecting more than 700 jobs at a Sappi papermill just upstream from the dam.

"This is my point folks: she is saying that she doesn't want to close the mill but she wants the dams out,” said LePage, a former paper company employee and businessman who is seeking a third non-consecutive term as governor. “You can't run the mill without the dams. That's the problem. So she's speaking out of both sides. And I'm the only one that speaks French around here."

LePage accused the Mills administration – particularly the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Maine Department of Marine Resources – of blocking dam owner Brookfield Renewable U.S.’s attempts to relicense Shawmut with federal regulators. LePage also said the Mills administration was “openly plotting the removal in the dam, resulting in the subsequent closing of the Sappi Mill – an absolute economic disaster for the state of Maine.”

But the Mills campaign countered that it was LePage and his allies who are being dishonest. In a statement, campaign spokesman Scott Ogden said that LePage “chose to lie to Maine people today by wrongly saying that the state is requiring the removal of the Shawmut Dam” and that the Republican former governor is using “scare tactics” by suggesting Mills wanted to close the Sappi mill.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Ogden said. “Governor Mills grew up not far from Skowhegan. She understands how critical the Sappi Mill is to Skowhegan, the surrounding region, and the state of Maine. It provides good-paying jobs to Maine people and is an important tax base for local residents. As one of the last remaining pulp mills in the state, it is also an integral component of our forest economy supply chain, supporting landowners, loggers, and truckers, among others. As the Governor has said before, closure of this mill – and the resulting ripple effect across the industry, including job losses – would not be acceptable to her, and she will not allow it to happen. Her administration’s commitment to the mill is clear and unwavering.”

Shawmut is one of four dams that Brookfield Renewable U.S. owns along the Kennebec River. And it has become the latest flashpoint in Maine's decades-long debate over how to restore habitat for Atlantic salmon and other sea-run fish while preserving jobs and tax revenues that rely on the dams. Maine is home to the last sizable populations of wild Atlantic salmon in the United States, but the number of fish that return annually to Maine rivers is a tiny fraction of the massive historical returns before dams impeded their upstream passage to spawn.

Environmental groups have had considerable success removing dams in Maine, including the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Augusta. A coalition worked with another hydropower company to remove two major dams on the Penobscot River while bypassing a third. But the fight over Shawmut's fate has been far more contentious because Sappi North America claims its Skowhegan papermill would be unable to operate if the dam is removed and water levels drop dramatically.

Rep. Joel Stetkis, a Canaan Republican whose constituents include Sappi workers, said that Sappi and Brookfield account for more than 40 percent of the tax revenue that flows to Skowhegan.

"If this dam removal goes forward, the economic ripple effect will be devastating for our area," Stetkis said.

Brookfield has proposed a new fish lift to help salmon and other species get around the dam. State regulators and environmentalists say that would not adequately protect any endangered salmon attempt to pass upstream or downstream, however. Environmental groups, meanwhile, would like to remove Shawmut and other dams as a way to restore fish habitat. All sides have filed lawsuits and counter-lawsuits over the issue.

Dam owner Brookfield Renewable is currently asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, to relicense the Shawmut dam for another 50 years. FERC and the National Marine Fisheries Service are currently studying the environmental impact of the Shawmut dam, including it’s effect on endangered Atlantic salmon. And in July, the Maine Department of Environmental Quality released a draft order denying Brookfield's water quality certification at Shawmut while that federal study is underway.

“A denial without prejudice would not change current operational requirements for the dam, nor would it require removal of the dam as asserted by some commenters,” DEP spokesman and deputy commissioner David Madore said in a statement. “Brookfield would need to file a new (water quality certification) application with the department to continue with the federal licensing process. The department looks forward to working with Brookfield as it continues to refine its relicensing proposal and as it works to submit an updated and complete request for certification to the department.”

In a letter to DEP officials, attorney Sharon Newman for Brookfield called the denial based on potential future changes “entirely speculative” and accused the department of “acting arbitrarily and capriciously” by imposing requirements on the Shawmut project that have not been imposed on other projects.