The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has hardened its opposition to the proposed Basin Mills hydroelectric dam. The EPA action is important because the agency eventually will have veto power over Basin Mills.
EPA does not have the authority to veto Basin Mills at this stage in the long approval process, but it can squash the project when Bangor Hydro seeks a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers under the federal Clean Water Act. That’s the next step for the utility.
“The lower Penobscot River is a remarkable natural resource that would be jeopardized by the Basin Mills dam,” said John P. DeVillars, administrator of the EPA’s New England region.
DeVillars said the project would submerge 41 acres of biologically rich wetlands; hurt efforts to restore wild runs of Atlantic salmon to the river; affect the Penobsoct Indian Nation’s spiritual heritage and traditional rights to harvest those fish; and eliminate many salmon fishing sites in the area.
The dam also would violate the federal Clean Water Act and Maine’s water quality standards, according to the EPA.
“These impacts are severe and avoidable,” said DeVillars. “We would be acting irresponsibly if we permitted them.”
Salmon fishermen and other opponents to the project cheered the EPA action.
“It is time for Bangor Hydro to throw in the towel and dump this ill-conceived hydroelectric project,” said Donald Shields of Bangor, chairman of the Penobscot River Coalition. “The Basin Mills dam is dead.”
For more than a decade, Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. has been seeking state and federal permits to build a dam spanning the Penobscot River between Orono and Bradley. Along with modifications to an existing hydroelectric generating facility in Veazie, the $115 million Basin Mills project would generate 52 megawatts of power.
The EPA, however, urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to find “more environmentally sound solutions to the region’s energy needs.” FERC is reviewing a draft environmental impact statement that recommends the approval of Basin Mills with numerous conditions.
DeVillars said the draft EIS failed to examine alternatives that would cause less environmental damage, including energy conservation, improved efficiency at existing hydro facilities, or smaller hydro projects at sites that were less environmentally sensitive.
Alan Spear, environmental compliance specialist at Bangor Hydro, bristled at the suggestion that the project failed to meet state water-quality standards. After a lengthy hearing process, the Maine Board of Environmental Protection certified in November 1993 that the state’s water standards would not be violated.
“At the very least, you’d think the state board would be in the best position to review the state’s criteria and determine if the project met them or not,” said Spear. “It’s frightful that all our time and money might be for naught because somebody in Boston or Washington is opposed to the project.”
The FERC staff is expected to prepare a final EIS this fall. The commission will then decide whether to allow Bangor Hydro to build the dam.
Bangor Hydro also must get a “certificate of public necessity and convenience” from the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
The ultimate fate of Basin Mills is no clearer today than it was 10 years ago. The opposition of the EPA could be less important than the changing dynamics of the utility industry, which is prompting many companies like Bangor Hydro to place less emphasis on generating electricity and more on improving the efficiency of power distribution.