Deal Would Keep Dam, Build Fish Passage
WINSLOW — A Boston company is primed to purchase Fort Halifax Dam with the intention of saving it from destruction.
Essex Hydro Associates has reached a deal in principle to purchase the dam from FPL Energy, said Barry Flynn, vice president of Essex Hydro. He hopes the deal will be finalized within the next few weeks.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would need to issue a license to Essex Hydro in order for the sale to proceed, Flynn said. FPL has started the process of surrendering its license to produce electricity at the dam.
A 1998 agreement obligated FPL Energy to either build a fish lift or destroy at least a portion of the dam to meet passage requirements for certain sea-run species. Citing a $3 million to $4 million cost to build the fish lift, FPL had planned to breach the hydroelectric dam on the Sebasticook River.
Flynn declined to say how much his company will pay for the dam. FPL officials said last fall they were willing to transfer ownership of the dam to a company willing to install a fish lift.
Essex Hydro, which owns the dam at Benton Falls, believes it can install a fish passage for less than $3 million, Flynn said. Kleinschmidt Associates, which engineered the Benton Falls fish passage, has engineered a fish lift that has received preliminary approval from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife consultant. The agency must sign off on fish lift plans in order to satisfy the 1998 agreement between government agencies and conservation and fishery groups.
Flynn expects the fish lift to be completed on approximately the same timetable FPL had laid out for the dam’s removal.
“We see fish passing there in 2009, barring any unforeseen problems and barring further litigation,” Flynn said.
Essex Hydro specializes in small hydroelectric stations, Flynn said. Combining management at the Benton Falls and Fort Halifax dams makes saving the Fort Halifax dam much more appealing to Essex Hydro than it was to FPL, Flynn said.
“Larger projects don’t make sense for us because we don’t have the resources and capability,” Flynn said.
Flynn announced his company’s intention during Thursday’s annual meeting of the Kennebec Hydro Developers Group, a collection of dam owners, state and federal agencies, and the Kennebec Coalition, a collection of conservation groups.
Nick Bennett of the Natural Resources Council of Maine had not heard of Essex Hydro’s intention until Thursday.
“I don’t have any comment on this,” Bennett said. “We have no idea what they’re talking about.”
Flynn said his company would be sitting down with the interested parties in the near future. The deal will only go forward with approval from the collection of government agencies and conservation and fishery groups that established the fish lift requirement as part of a 1998 agreement, Flynn said.
“We’re not going to run ahead without everybody’s signing off,” he said.
Until those groups sign off on the deal, FPL plans to move forward with its plans to destroy the dam, said Allen Wiley, of FPL.
“Our position is as it has always been,” he said. “In order for this to happen the interested parties would have to sign off. If that happens, and all other parties are satisfied, then it’s something we’re willing to move forward on.”
The state’s law court recently heard arguments on the Department of Environmental Protection’s decision to allow the dam’s deconstruction. Dam proponents argued the agency had failed to follow regulations in making its decision.
The law court likely will not render a decision in time to destroy the dam this year, which means the process would be delayed until sometime in the late summer or fall of 2008, Wiley said.
“In the meantime we’re still moving forward as though the surrender of our license and partial removal of the dam will take place,” Wiley said.
“Really, the ball is in Essex Hydro’s court and the other signatories’.”
Thomas Squiers, director of the Department of Marine Resources’s Stock Enhancement Division, said there should be few roadblocks for Essex Hydro’s purchase.
“As long as they put in an acceptable fish lift I don’t see how anybody could legally object to it, at least people who signed the agreement,” Squiers said.
Clinton “Bill” Townsend, president of Maine Rivers, said the concern is a fish lift capable of handling a massive gathering of alewives in the narrow stream at the base of the dam.
Atlantic salmon and American shad will not swim through the alewives to swim upstream, so the lift must be large enough to move all the fish quickly, Townsend said.
But Ben Rizzo, head fishway engineer for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, has already looked at Essex’s concepts, Squiers said.
“As far as the conceptual design, he didn’t have any problems with them,” Squiers said.
“I think they’re 95 percent of the way there, but it’s still not a done deal.”
Rep. Kenneth Fletcher, R-Winslow, a landowner on the Fort Halifax impoundment who has worked to save the dam, said Essex Hydro’s proposal will satisfy both conservationists and those who want to keep the dam in place.
“I think this is great news for the people of Winslow and great news for the people of the state of Maine,” he said.