April 04, 2020

Federal government sinks Calais water proposal

CALAIS – The federal government for a second time has told the city it cannot drill for municipal water at the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge.

In December 2001, the government said no, but city officials had hoped that with a new president in Washington, D.C., the Bush administration would be more favorable to the proposal.

Officials of the U.S. Department of the Interior have been reluctant to approve the project for fear it would set a precedent and water-hungry farmers in the West would demand the same consideration in their area.

In a letter to the city dated April 18, Anthony Leger, regional chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, said that even though the city’s proposal had changed in some ways, the federal government’s position had not.

The city had hoped to drill for water at Hanson’s Pit on the refuge.

For years, the city has purchased its water from St. Stephen, New Brunswick, but a change in the Clean Water Act forced the city to look elsewhere. The Canadian town plans to turn off the supply in 2003.

City officials cast about for an alternative and sought permission to drill over a huge aquifer at the refuge. Permission was given, a test well was drilled, and it was clear that the well would produce about 300,000 gallons per minute. Only then did the federal government say no.

Last year, the city presented refuge officials with a revised proposal. According to Leger, the city would swap 260 acres next to the refuge for the right to drill the well.

Because of these proposed changes, Leger said, a new environmental assessment is required. “This current proposal and the possibility of a land exchange were not considered in the initial EA and, therefore, additional [National Environmental Policy Act] documentation would be necessary. Because of these issues, we have come to the conclusion that we cannot complete the required [compatibility determination] due to the project now lacking the specific details,” Leger wrote.

Although a new EA would be possible, Leger said, “we do not believe … that developing a new EA or any additional analyses and work on the refuge option is advisable since the ultimate conclusion would still likely be denial of the request.”

Leger suggested that the city look elsewhere for water.

For the past several months the city has entered into negotiations with Calais businessman Larry Mahar for land he owns next to the city’s Industrial Park. The city also has been in discussion with Domtar Industries Inc. of Baileyville for land it owns near Mahar’s. Test wells have been drilled in those areas and a combination of wells there and elsewhere would produce the amount of water needed by the city. The city says it needs a municipal system that will produce upward of 500,000 gallons per minute.

In his written report, presented to the City Council on Thursday, water consultant Norm Dineen said he anticipates the city will begin to pump water from the Domtar well into the Calais system by early August.

“The Mahar land deal obviously is another issue and needs to be resolved,” Dineen said.

The council expects to complete the negotiations with Mahar in the near future. The city hopes to end its water dependency on St. Stephen sometime this year.

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