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May 17, 2021

Three Maine conservation groups plan to sue Brookfield over Kennebec dams

A dam above a rocky passage on a wide river, with a railroad bridge going over it and a tree-lined riverbank 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 dams over which the conservation groups may file suit.

Three conservation groups plan to sue Brookfield Renewable Partners for what the groups say are repeated violations of the federal Endangered Species Act, the latest salvo over Brookfield's dams on the Kennebec River.

Four dams owned by Brookfield (NYSE: BEP) between Waterville and Skowhegan threaten the survival of Atlantic salmon, according to the notice of intent to sue filed by the Conservation Law Foundation, Maine Rivers and the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

"Brookfield’s authorization to 'take' Atlantic salmon trying to pass upstream and downstream through the dams expired in 2019, and since that time the company has continued to kill fish, in clear violation of the ESA," the groups said in a news release.

The suit would be the latest skirmish in a long-running battle between the global energy company, which wants the dams to stay, and the state government and conservation groups, which want them removed. Last month, the Maine Department of Marine Resources said it would withdraw an amendment to its Kennebec River Management Plan that suggested removing the four dams from the Kennebec River between Waterville and Skowhegan after Brookfield filed for an injunction to stop the potential dam removal.

The four dams are in Waterville-Winslow, Fairfield and Skowhegan and are among 38 that Brookfield Renewable Partners owns in Maine. They provide 250 million kilowatt-hours of energy annually, about 6% of the state's electricity use. 

The state has said the energy the dams produce is "relatively small," and that advancement of solar and wind power in the state will soon make them unnecessary. State scientists have also said the positive impact on natural resources by removing them would be large. 

Brookfield advocates for fish passages on the dams, though the most recently proposal was rejected by the federal government last July. The company has said that dam removal would detrimental to Kennebec communities, businesses and stakeholders downriver from the dams. Brookfield has not publicly responded to the intent to sue letter.

“Today, Atlantic salmon in the United States are on the edge of extinction, and their continued survival in the United States depends on further restoration of a free-flowing Kennebec more than any other river,” said Natural Resources Council of Maine Staff Scientist Nick Bennett in the news release.

Warm temperatures and predation in the stagnant bodies of water behind the dams are among the likely killers of young salmon as they try to return to the ocean, according to the NRC. The dams also cause harmful conditions for other sea-run fish species, such as river herring, that are bait for the state’s lobster industry and needed to restore healthy populations of groundfish in the Gulf of Maine, the groups said.

“We have seen years of inaction and delay that have blocked meaningful restoration of Maine’s second largest watershed,” said Maine Rivers Executive Director Landis Hudson. “Sustained efforts by state and federal agencies have not been successful. It’s a shocking situation that needs to be directly addressed.”

The Kennebec is the state's second-largest watershed, and was once the most productive river in Maine for sea-run fish, with Atlantic salmon runs in the hundreds of thousands. The conservation groups said the fish runs remain important to the culture and livelihood of the region’s native Wabanaki tribes.

Atlantic salmon spend the majority of their life the ocean, but swim inland to spawn in the same freshwater stream where they were born. The conservation groups said that in 2020, only 51 salmon made it past the first of Brookfield’s four dams.

Removal of the Edwards Dam, in Augusta, in 1999, and the Fort Halifax Dam, in Winslow, in 2008, have resulted in a dramatic recovery of the Kennebec River, including a huge increase in fish and wildlife, the groups said. They said that further progress has stalled because Brookfield’s Lockwood, Hydro-Kennebec, Shawmut and Weston Dams block adult Atlantic salmon from reaching critical spawning and rearing habitat in the Sandy River, a tributary of the Kennebec River.

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