Maine will lose a fraction of its electric-generating capacity under an order issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Tuesday. But in exchange the state will gain 17 miles of free-running, fish-bearing Kennebec River.
The federal agency, which licenses private dams around the nation, voted 2-1 to order Edwards Manufacturing Co. of Lisbon Falls to shut down and remove Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Augusta. Mark Isaacson, vice president of the company, said he expects to appeal the decision.
Tuesday’s decision was the first time the agency has required an operator to remove a dam when that operator had asked to renew its license. FERC determined that the energy produced at the dam can be replaced easily, and that removing the structure would substantially improve fish habitat, wetlands and recreational boating and fishing.
“Hallelujah!” said Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, in response to the news. “We’ve been working on this for 10 years and we never were sure we would get to this day.”
Although Edwards Dam is relatively small in comparison with the embattled Western behemoths, producing one-tenth of 1 percent of the electricity used in Maine, it still has proven an insurmountable obstacle to several species of fish that migrate between fresh water and the sea. The 160-year-old dam blocks endangered shortnose sturgeon, Atlantic salmon, alewives and a half-dozen other species from their traditional freshwater spawning grounds.
Removing the dam would open up 17 more miles of freshwater habitat for those fish, leaving the Kennebec undammed from Waterville to the Atlantic. Environmentalists say that would make the Kennebec the longest stretch of spawning habitat north of the Hudson River.
NRCM and other environmental groups hailed the decision as precedent-setting. But federal and state officials were quick to say that the move does not open the flood gates to more dam removals.
“This was a unique case,” said FERC spokeswoman Celeste Miller. “We don’t expect this case to cause any sort of wave of dam removals or decommissioning. We evaluate each case on its own merit.”
Evan Richert, director of the Maine State Planning Office, said the state was pleased with the decision, but recognized that “hydropower has a long and important future for Maine.” The “unique circumstances” at Edwards Dam, however, “swung the balance in favor of its removal.”
FERC staff recommended dismantling the dam this summer, saying that the cost of installing a fish passage system, such as a ladder, would be far greater than the cost of taking it out.
The federal agency estimated the cost of these improvements at $10 million, while removing the dam would cost an estimated $2.7 million. Edwards Manufacturing said it could do the work for $1.5 million, while removing the dam would cost $6.4 million.
Gov. Angus King and his predecessor, Gov. John McKernan, both called for the dam’s removal. Environmental groups — including NRCM, Trout Unlimited, Amercian Rivers and the Atlantic Salmon Federation — all called for the dam’s removal. Their cry was joined by state agencies and both of Maine’s U.S. senators.
Edwards Manufacturing Co. and the city of Augusta, which was scheduled to take over the dam’s electrical operation in 2020, opposed the measure.
Isaacson also saw the move as setting a precedent — at his company’s expense.
“We are not particularly pleased at being used so that the commission can make a point,” he said. “That’s not their job.”
Issacson said he objected to FERC forcing his company to remove the dam without any federal compensation. The move, he continued, sets a bad policy by making dam operators responsible for restoring dammed areas to pre-dam conditions when their licenses expire.
“The current policy is that at the end of the license, you either get a new license or you get taken out for your net investment,” Isaacson said. “When Edwards Manufacturing Co. accepted this license, it accepted that bargain. The government also accepted the bargain in issuing the license. What is now happening is the government is trying to escape from its side of the bargain.”
Issacson estimated the government should pay his company between $6 million and $10 million for the facility. If the government does not, Isaacson said it would be violating the Constitutional requirement to compensate property owners when their property is taken.
Richert said the state wants to help the company dismantle the dam and avoid legal action that would delay the dam’s demolition.
The state will not be giving the company tax dollars to do the work FERC has required, Richert said.
But some funding could be available through Bath Iron Works, he said. The shipbuilder’s expansion will reduce fish habitat in the lower end of the Kennebec River, and the company must make up for that habitat loss elsewhere.
From Washington, both of Maine’s senators called the decision a victory.
“I am pleased that after careful comparison of the economic benefits and the environmental impact of the Edwards Dam, the FERC concluded that the limited amount of electricity produced by this specific dam does not justify the damage caused to the anadromous fishery of the Kennebec River,” said Sen. Susan Collins in a press release. “The ruling is a significant victory for the Kennebec River’s anadromous fishery and for the Maine citizens that benefit from the recreational and economic opportunities it provides.”
Sen. Olympia Snowe said the decision was cause for celebration.
“Removal of the Edwards Dam will open the way for restoration of the vital sturgeon, salmon and other fisheries and provide substantial benefits to the economy of the Kennebec Valley,” she said in a release.
The Associated Press
Some facts about Edwards Dam:
Located on Kennebec River in downtown Augusta. 917 feet wide, with an 850-foot spillway. Water passes through a power canal at the west end of the timber and concrete structure, which rises 20 feet above the water surface.
Creates impoundment that extends 17 miles north on Kennebec. Of the 10 dams along the Kennebec, Edwards is closest to the ocean.
EFFECT OF REMOVAL
Will provide salmon, shad, the endangered shortnose sturgeon and other species access to 17 more miles of the Kennebec.
Gives Atlantic sturgeon, striped bass and rainbow smelt, which do not use fishways, access to their entire historic range within the Kennebec.