The fish win one: U.S. orders hydroelectric dam torn down Environmentalists hail loss of license

November 26, 1997|By BOSTON GLOBE

For the first time in U.S. history, federal power regulators refused yesterday to extend the operating license for a hydroelectric dam, ordering that a 900-foot-wide structure on Maine's Kennebec River be ripped out so that sturgeon, bass, salmon and smelt can reach their spawning grounds.

With dozens of power-producing dams coming up for reconsideration in New England and around the country in coming years, environmentalists cheered the ruling, saying it gives them hope that other rivers may soon be ordered restored to a wilder, more natural state.

But the owners of the Augusta dam vowed to appeal the ruling, calling it an unjust seizure that will saddle them with more than $6 million in removal costs.

The owner, Edwards Manufacturing Co., which shares the license with the city of Augusta, has a year before it has to file a plan for removing the dam.

Given the near-certainty of a legal battle, it could be years before the Kennebec is ever unleashed to run its natural course.

The 160-year-old dam produces only 0.1 percent of Maine's electricity, and New England environmentalists and Maine officials have crusaded for a decade to remove it.

Foes of the dam say razing it would reopen 17 miles of the Kennebec to spawning fish swimming in from the ocean -- the longest spawning habitat north of the Hudson River -- and greatly improve the river's health and recreational appeal in the region near Augusta and Waterville.

By a 2-1 vote, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which controls the periodic reissuance of operating licenses for hydroelectric facilities, refused to reissue the Edwards Dam license -- which had expired in 1993 and had been temporarily extended -- and ordered the dam removed.

The commission's chairman, James J. Hoecker, said the decision "reflects a balanced view of environmental as well as social and economic considerations."

"I want to emphasize one point, however: Hydroelectric power will remain a valuable part of the nation's energy mix, especially in light of its implications for clean air. Our order in this case pertains to some very special facts," Hoecker said in a prepared statement.

Costs out of balance

Several environmentalists agreed that the Edwards Dam represented a special case, because the $2.5 million worth of electricity it produced each year was far less than the cost of its environmental damage.

In an environmental impact report, the commission's staff had recommended that if the dam extension were approved, the owners be required to install an $8.9 million fishway and spend $1 million on environmental remediation.

Those moves would have cost about 70 percent more than destroying the 40-foot-tall wooden and concrete structure, which was built in 1837 to power a textile mill and upgraded to generate electricity in 1920.

Interviews with several New England environmental leaders yesterday did not suggest any consensus on a "hit list" of dams they will try to order destroyed in future relicensing.

Rather, many see the Edwards Dam as bolstering the case that hydroelectric dam owners should be forced to address the environmental costs of their projects as conditions of licensing.

Conservation compromise

One example was the agreement in September by New England Power to put 11,000 acres of land into conservation and adopt more environmentally friendly water-management practices as a condition of approval to continue operating its Fifteen Mile Falls project on the upper Connecticut River.

"I don't think that all of a sudden you are going to see 50 or 60 percent of these dams removed," said Kenneth Kimball, director of research with the Appalachian Mountain Club, which has been active in hydroelectric dam controversies.

Kimball said yesterday's ruling strengthens environmentalists' case that "the true impact of hydro is becoming apparent."

"It is 'green' relative to the air pollution issue," he said, "but it is not green relative to its impact on rivers and watersheds."

Array of opponents

Among those leading the fight against relicensing the Edwards Dam were the Natural Resources Council of Maine, American Rivers, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Trout Unlimited, Gov. Angus King and both Maine senators.

Some Maine environmental leaders hope the Edwards ruling will help their fight to block a proposed dam on the Penobscot River in Veazie, near Bangor, which has not received final approval from the federal commission.

Pub Date: 11/26/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.