March 16, 2010

Company quits deal to remove mill dam


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John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Tuesday. July 10, 2007. Sappi's Westbrook mill announces a agreement with Friends of the Presumpscot River and other agencies to remove the Cumberland Mills dam seen here located at the mill in Westbrook by 2011. The dam has been in place since the late 1800's.

Staff Writer

A historic deal to remove a dam and allow sea-run fish back up the Presumpscot River has collapsed, one year after it was announced, and conservationists are again asking the state to force the dam's owner to install a fish passageway.

Sappi Fine Paper North America, owner of the former S.D. Warren paper mill in downtown Westbrook, said last July that it would remove the Cumberland Mills Dam by 2011 and eventually allow fish passage at several dams upstream.

The Cumberland Mills Dam, adjacent to the paper mill, is the first obstacle for herring, alewives, shad and other fish that swim upriver from Casco Bay.

State officials and conservation groups hailed the plan as a turning point in a long-running battle over fish access on the Presumpscot that included violent clashes between American Indians and industrial settlers 250 years ago and a U.S. Supreme Court case in 2006. Gov. John Baldacci praised the deal as a good balance between the industrial and ecological uses of the river.

But Sappi pulled out of the deal within the last several weeks without public notice or explanation.

''Sappi has decided not to go forward with the fishway settlement,'' said company spokeswoman Brooke Carey. She said she had ''no other details to share at this time.''

Before the deal, Sappi resisted fish passage at its dams, saying the millions of dollars it would cost to install fish ladders would jeopardize the mill and the 330 jobs it provides. State officials believe that the costs were a factor in the deal's collapse.

''In the end, some of the (cost) estimates started coming back much higher'' than expected, said Pat Keliher, director of the Bureau of Sea Run Fisheries and Habitat in the Maine Department of Marine Resources. ''I think they just made a determination that the cost was going to be too great for them. We're all kind of regrouping here a little bit.''

John Martis, who was the mill's manager last summer, said at the time that the agreement would cost the company well in excess of $10 million -- about $6 million to remove the Cumberland Mills Dam and restore the riverbed, and about $4 million for upstream fish passage.

But, he said, the agreement also would spread the costs over a longer period of time than would have been the case had the state legally compelled fish passage at Cumberland Mills.

An attorney for the Friends of the Presumpscot River, a group of mostly riverside residents, declined to talk about the company's reversal.

The group was instrumental in the deal and in winning a U.S. Supreme Court ruling two years ago that required Sappi to install passageways in the future at five federally licensed hydropower dams upriver of its mill. That decision did not cover the Cumberland Mills Dam because it is used to create a pond of water for papermaking and does not generate power.

The Friends of the Presumpscot River had formally asked Maine's commissioner of inland fisheries and wildlife to require a fish passageway at Cumberland Mills based on a state law that allows the department to take such action in the interest of fisheries.

That legal process was put on hold a year ago, when the deal was announced. But the group, together with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, filed a request last month to resume the proceeding. A formal hearing on the arguments from both sides is expected to be held later this year.

The leader of the Friends of Sebago Lake, a group that pledged to fight the agreement with Sappi, said the deal's collapse is good news for the river and its fish.

Roger Wheeler said the deal included too many compromises with Sappi.

Forcing the company to install fish passage at Cumberland Mills would compel the company to create fish ladders upstream at a faster pace than the agreement would have, he said. And the agreement would not have allowed salmon and other fish to swim all the way up the river.

''We want to restore the fish all the way up to Sebago Lake. That's the way it should be,'' he said.

Friends of Sebago Lake was preparing to fight the agreement in court, arguing that it was negotiated in private and would illegally change the terms of federal hydropower licenses. State officials defended the agreement as a legal compromise that would have finally settled the dispute.

Keliher, of the Department of Marine Resources, said he's confident that the commissioner of inland fisheries and wildlife ultimately will order fish passage at the Cumberland Mills Dam, triggering the installation of fish ladders upstream as fish populations return.

''We've got to prove that there's both benefits to recreational and commercial species, and we can prove that easy enough,'' Keliher said.

He still hopes to avoid a return to the prolonged legal arguments that seemed to have been settled a year ago.

''I think as we get closer (to a hearing), we'll start to learn some of the reasons we ended up here,'' Keliher said. ''I'm hopeful we'll still be able to work something out without a lot of delay.''

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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