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April 2, 2021

Brookfield Renewable files motion to stop Kennebec River dam removals

Photo / Maureen Milliken Brookfield Renewables' Lockwood Dam, at Ticonic Falls on the Kennebec River between Waterville and Winslow, foreground, and the Hydro Kennebec Dam, in back, beyond the bridge, are two of four that the state Department of Marine Resources is proposing be removed.

Global renewable energy company Brookfield Renewable Partners has filed an injunction and complaint against the Maine Department of Marine Resources that week to stop the potential removal of four dams on the Kennebec River.

Brookfield Renewable’s Merimil LP, Hydro Kennebec LLC and Brookfield White Pine Hydro LLC have jointly filed a complaint and motion for preliminary injunction against the department and Commissioner Patrick Kelliher to halt finalization of an amendment to the Kennebec River Management Plan that would remove the dams in Waterville-Winslow, Fairfield and Skowhegan.

The dams are among 38 that Brookfield owns in Maine, and they provide 250 million kilowatt hours of energy annually, about 6% of the state's electricity use. Brookfield Renewable Partners [NYSE: BEP] operates in more than 30 countries and with projects including wind, hydro, pumped storage and biomass, as well as real estate, infrastructure and private equity investments.

The filings take issue an amendment last year to the 1993 river management plan that calls for dam removal in order to improve the habitat and other resources on the river. The amendment process has completed the public hearing phase last week. State officials have declined to comment on the suit.

Brookfield says that the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is the department with authority over the dams and the Department of Marine Resources' decision to "unilaterally change Maine's policy with regards to hydropower on the Kennebec River should be declared illegal."

"The MDMR and state officials have demonstrated a lack of understanding of how detrimental dam removal would be to the lower Kennebec communities, businesses and stakeholders and how the 2020 amendment conflicts with Maine’s climate and renewable energy policies," the filing says.

The filings also says that the state has encouraged hydropower on the Kennebec as a way to replace fossil fuel dependence over the past 40 years, and removing the dams goes against that.

Timing of amendment questioned

Brookfield questions the timing as well, with Brookfield applying to relicense the Shawmut Dam in Fairfield, which is one of the four proposed for removal. Early last year, DMR and National Marine Fisheries Services both have opposed the Shawmut relicensing, and instead recommended removing it.

"Hydropower projects are licensed by [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission], but state agencies have significant input into the FERC licensing process, and DMR is obviously expecting that the plan amendment will cause FERC to decommission rather than relicense the Shawmut dam, and then decommission Brookfield's other hydropower projects on the Kennebec as they come up for relicensing in the coming years," the injunction motion says.

The 2020 amendment process "has been fraught with missteps and misinformation," including lack of initial stakeholder and interagency consultation, failure to notify affected parties "and by claiming the 2020 amendment is merely a 'guidance document' with no fiscal impact."

The company has said that reconfiguring the dams to allow fish spawn is a better solution than removing them. But its proposed Species Protection Plan for Atlantic salmon was rejected by the federal government in July.

Dam removal has supporters

The Department of Marine Resources says that removing the dams would restore Atlantic salmon, American shad, blueback herring, alewife and sea lamprey to that area of the river, which has lagged "primarily because of the lack of upstream fish passage." Restoration of the variety of fish species leads to other restoration, as well as recreation and economic development opportunities, the state said in its proposal.

The DMR proposal calls the  energy the dams produce "relatively small" but the impact on state resources large. "The state believes the best approach to meet our management goals for the Kennebec River is to decommission and remove some or all of the dams in the lower Kennebec," the proposal says.

The move is supported by environmental groups, many of which cite the 1999 removal of the Edwards Dam in Augusta. Proponents say removal of that dam helped renew river habitat in the area and it has been cited as a force behind downtown Augusta's revival. Proponents say that the energy produced, 6% of what's used in the state, is being replaced by solar and wind power.

The National Resources Council of Maine, a major supporter of dam removal, said in a news release that Brookfield hasn't lived up to a 1998 agreement with the Kennebec Coalition, a group organizations focused on the issue, to work on restoring fish passage to the river,

"Successful river restoration efforts in the lower Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers have shown that when dams are removed, native fish and wildlife return in record numbers, injecting new life into river ecosystems that help revive riverfront communities and support commercial and recreational fisheries," the NRC said.

While millions of fish have returned to the river below Waterville, "That is where their travels end — except for a tiny fraction that are trapped and transported in trucks upstream. Sea-run fish still cannot swim above the Lockwood Dam because Brookfield and previous dam owners have failed to live up to their responsibilities under the 1998 agreement."

Waterville's city council recently voted to support removing the dams, but town councils in Fairfield and Winslow oppose it.

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