by Susan Sharon
Maine Public Radio news story
Just days after the Plum Creek Timber Company acknowledged that it mistakenly logged a deer wintering area and violated a voluntary agreement with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the company is under fire again; and so is the state agency that oversees land use in the unorganized territories. This time the focus is Kibby Mountain in western Maine where Transcanada is in the process of developing a wind power project, and where related logging operations by Plum Creek and a sub-contractor have been linked to serious land use violations.
Pictures taken at the site by an independent engineering firm and provided to the Land Use Regulation Commission in late October show a logging road so damaged by rain, logging activity and erosion that it created a mudslide described as nearly 900 feet long. Other pictures show the mud thigh-deep. And one caption indicates that it was so thick a skidder with four chained tires got stuck and had to be pulled out with a cable. “These mud flows are huge. This is a mess. This really shouldn’t happen,” says Nick Bennett, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Bennett has been reviewing Plum Creek’s activities in the area and the handling of the matter by the state’s Land Use Regulation Commission known as LURC. Although TransCanada holds a LURC approved permit to develop the site for wind, Plum Creek is the landowner. And Bennett says it was a Plum Creek logging contractor that was removing timber from the area in preparation for the wind farm. “LURC eventually issued a letter of warning to TransCanada which we don’t think is sufficient. We don’t think it’s sufficient with LURC’s policy, which is to hold the landowner accountable and the landowner in this case is Plum Creek. They’re the ones who were harvesting in bad conditions. They ignored a stop work order both from the third party inspector and from TransCanada and LURC did not hold them accountable.”
As part of its permit requirements, TransCanada hired a third-party, SJR Engineering, to review its clearing operations. When SJR’s inspector, Steve Roberge visited the site on October 22nd he found standard erosion control measures were lacking. And he communicated to TransCanada and LURC the very next day that he thought logging operations should cease until the ground froze.
TransCanada notified Plum Creek by phone and email to stop work. But records show that did not happen for four more days. By then another heavy rain had fallen. Independent inspector Steve Roberge did not return telephone calls to MPBN, but when he visited the damaged site on October 27th Roberge wrote in his report, “I’m at a loss to understand the thinking/implementation process here.” And in an email to LURC he said, “I believe this violation deserves some sort of fine. If this doesn’t qualify, I’m not sure what would.”
“Based on the Commission’s compliance and enforcement policy we thought that the most appropriate response was to issue a letter of warning,” says Catherine Carroll, executive director of LURC. Carroll says the commission determined that TransCanada as the permittee was the responsible party for the violations, and not Plum Creek. And so that’s where the letter of warning was sent, with a copy sent to Plum Creek. No fines or other penalties were issued.
“We took a look at the site and it appeared there was an erosion event,” Carroll says. “However, we also noticed that the sediment did not get anywhere close to a water body, which is something that we would have been very concerned about had that occurred.” Carroll says TransCanada immediately took steps to correct the violations. She points out that this is the company’s first permit in Maine. It has no record of past transgressions.
But that’s not the case with Plum Creek, says Brownie Carson, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. He counters that Plum Creek was fined nearly $60,000 by the state–the highest penalty ever imposed–for repeat violations of Maine’s Forest Practices Act. “These are people who clearcut deeryards, who built a powerline without getting a permit through a forested area. NRCM’s position is that Plum Creek needs to be slapped and slapped hard and thus far they really haven’t been.”
Carson says LURC’s own enforcement policy stresses that consequences should be real in order to achieve deterrence and prevent repeat violations. It also says that past performance should be a factor in determining the size of any monetary penalty. And he’s worried about deterrence if Plum Creek moves forward on its next big project: development of 900 houselots and two large resorts at Moosehead Lake where LURC also has jurisdiction. Neither Plum Creek nor TransCanada returned telephone calls to MPBN. But in a written statement TransCanada officials said they regretted the incident.