March 24

Maine DEP's dam relicensing effort in disarray, records show

Missed deadlines have shorn Maine of power.

By Colin Woodard
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — The Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s dam re- licensing efforts have been in confusion and disarray over the past year, according to emails and other documents obtained through a public records request.

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Maine DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho chairs a hearing in Aurora on June 6. In 2011, Aho decentralized responsibility for dam relicensing. She re-centralized it after a deadline was missed.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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Click to explore a timeline showing key dam relicensing deadlines and the DEP's internal emails:

AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File

The state’s hydropower coordinator was often unaware of precisely which dams she was responsible for, when critical deadlines were, and even the identity of a key federal counterpart in the process. Nearly a year into her job, she wasn’t in possession of the files for some dam projects, including ones whose deadlines she had already missed.

Department emails obtained by the Maine Sunday Telegram also show that the LePage administration came within hours of missing a critical deadline that would have caused the state to lose authority over the federal relicensing of a dam near Moose- head Lake.

The DEP has missed deadlines for three other dam projects under Gov. Paul LePage, irrevocably waiving the state’s authority to set terms on water levels in reservoirs and rivers that affect recreation, fish spawning and passage, and waterfront property owners for a generation.

On Feb. 12, the DEP’s hydropower coordinator, Kathy Howatt, discovered by chance that she was hours away from missing the deadline for the Brassua dam, which lies to the west of Moosehead Lake in Somerset County and was about to be sold to Ontario-based Brookfield Power. She notified DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho, who, after several hours of contemplation, authorized her to take action to ensure the deadline was met, department emails show.

Local residents have sought tighter controls on water levels in Brassua Lake, where rapid changes have disrupted boating and sportfishing guides. Had the deadline been missed, the state would have lost the ability to require the dam owner to make changes until the next time the dam was up for relicensing, a quarter century or more down the road.

A month later, Howatt missed the March 20 deadlines for two more dam projects in eastern Washington County: the Forest City dam (which created Spednic Lake), and two storage dams and two dikes that control water levels and flow on Grand Lake and Sysladobsis Lake and are together called the West Branch Project. She did not discover her mistake for more than a month, emails and staff notes reveal, possibly because she was not in possession of the Forest City dam files and wouldn’t be for many months to come.

Department spokeswoman Jessamine Logan said by email last week that nobody at the department would be available to answer questions of any kind about the dam issues until Oct. 15 because they were busy reviewing “all of the ramifications that the federal government shutdown” had on funding and operations.

Sean Mahoney, executive vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation, said the newly disclosed emails “show the institutional memory of the department has been eviscerated.” The foundation is the environmental group that first made public that the DEP had missed its Nov. 15, 2011, deadline at Flagstaff Lake, which is drained down by the dam owner in late summer, ending the tourism, boating and swimming season and provoking dust storms in the lakeside town of Eustis.

“You’re putting new people into these roles who don’t have the institutional memory or aren’t being properly trained on what the responsibilities are and that’s a problem,” Mahoney said. “This is a failure to manage and supervise some of our most important resources: our rivers and our lakes and our hydro power.”

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