WINSLOW — Closure came to the controversy surrounding Fort Halifax Dam on Thursday morning with a few blows from a hoe-ram.
The demolition machine, essentially an excavator with a hydraulic hammer, began to breach a portion of the 100-year-old hydroelectric facility at about 10 a.m., as two dozen people watched from the Sebasticook River bridge.
Some bemoaned the dam’s removal, others watched with delight as the water began to flow through the opening.
Sentiments seemed about evenly divided.
“I think it is a good thing,” Waterville resident Mike Cleary said from the bridge. “I was there to see the Augusta dam go. I’m a big fly fisherman.”
But less than 50 feet away from Cleary, Winslow resident Tom Davis held an opposite view.
“I think it is ridiculous,” he said, “but everybody has their opinions. You have a perfectly functioning (hydroelectric) dam being taken out, but one mile away from here, they repaired one that was down and not producing any electricity.”
That other dam is the Union Gas project on Messalonskee Stream, a hydroelectric facility that Synergics Inc. put back into operation last year after a $1.7 million investment.
FPL Energy made a different decision with Fort Halifax. The company decided seven years ago to surrender its license and remove the dam.
A battle between opponents and supporters of removing Fort Halifax ensued, a debate that delayed the breaching for more than five years and resulted in multiple legal challenges, as well as anger and frustration on both sides of the controversy.
Rep. Kenneth Fletcher, R-Winslow, spearheaded the effort to preserve the dam.
Fletcher, whose home sits on the bank of what had been the reservoir formed by Fort Halifax Dam, founded the group Save Our Sebasticook with his wife, Mary Ellen, and served as the primary voice of opposition to the dam’s removal.
He criticized the 1998 agreement that required fish passage past Fort Halifax through either a fish lift or dam removal as a private deal between state agencies and a group of fisheries and conservation groups known collectively known as the Kennebec Coalition.
Members of the Kennebec Coalition argued they simply wanted timely and effective fish passage.
Once FPL Energy elected to pursue dam removal, the Coalition viewed that as the best option, although Fletcher and his group maintained the Coalition was determined to breach Fort Halifax from the start.
Essex Hydro Associates, a Boston-based company that operates a number of small hydro projects, including the Benton Falls Dam, sought to purchase Fort Halifax Dam and continue generating electricity at the facility.
FPL Energy was open to Essex Hydro’s interest, but other parties to the 1998 agreement found fault with the hydro company’s proposal and rejected the plan.
Essex Hydro made a late-hour attempt to delay removal so it could pursue taking over the project.
But on Thursday, at about the same time the hoe-ram began to breach Fort Halifax, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected Essex Hydro’s request to halt the breaching and acquire the dam.
For those assembled on the Sebasticook Bridge, physical rather than regulatory action was the order of the day: the slow, methodical jackhammer-like strikes of the hoe-ram told the story.
Nick Bennett, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, felt as if the hoe-ram released five years of frustration from his body.
“I’m very relieved to see that we are going to see this river come back to life,” he said from the bridge. “It is going to restore five miles of habitat to sea-run fish. This will be especially good habitat for shad.”
Bennett said the transformation of the Fort Halifax lake into a free-flowing river also should attract aquatic insects that will in turn attract wildlife such as mink and otters.
Reggie Bizier of Vassalboro grew up on the banks of the Fort Halifax reservoir and spent much of his life hunting, fishing and canoeing at what he called “the pond.”
Bizier said he will miss the man-made lake. His opposition, though, went beyond recreational issues.
“They are doing a foolish thing,” he said of the breaching. “There is too much energy there that they are destroying.”
Davis, the Winslow resident, said the loss of Fort Halifax already is having consequences beyond the loss of electrical power.
He said he came across dead bass and mussels stranded in the mud as result of the two week draw-down that preceded the breaching.
Davis said he followed the controversy over Fort Halifax’s fate and supported SOS.
Yet, he said, he was not surprised by Thursday’s outcome.
“I held hope (that Fort Halifax would be preserved),” he said, “but I never believed it would, because there were too many special interest groups with deep pockets (who wanted it out).”
Cleary, the Waterville fly fisherman, spoke just as critically about the opposition.
He said those most vocal about keeping the dam were homeowners on the reservoir who wanted to preserve their lake-front views.
Cleary said the dam’s removal benefits society as a whole.
“You’ve got to ultimately think what is best for the river and the environment,” he said, “and fish passage is what’s best for the river and the environment.”