March 24

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

Missed deadlines have shorn Maine of power.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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

AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File

Dana Murch, who oversaw dam relicensing at the DEP for 30 years until his retirement in September 2011, said he was troubled by what the emails revealed.

When he left, Aho decided to parcel Murch’s job out to several people working in regional offices, Murch said, and he spent three months training them and ensuring they had memos clearly indicating the situation with each dam project and what the key deadlines were. But at the beginning of October 2012, the department reversed course, re-centralizing relicensing in Augusta and putting Howatt – who had no previous experience with dam relicensing – in charge.

“For whatever reasons, the department decided they wanted a single person in charge, and you can make an argument to do that; but to do it without training that person is unconscionable,” he said. “In terms of complexity, the regulation of hydro projects is second only to nuclear power plants. There’s layer upon layer of statutes and agencies and regulations.”

State Sen. James Boyle, D-Gorham, who co-chairs the legislative committee overseeing the DEP, said Aho told him the recentralization had been in response to the missed deadline at Flagstaff the previous year.

Dam relicensing is a federal issue, but states can dictate terms on key issues – including seasonal water levels affecting recreation, fish spawning and fish passage – under a provision of the federal Clean Water Act, via the “water quality certification” process. Typically, a state will have to go through the annual formality of requesting the dam owner to withdraw and resubmit his application once a year until all issues are resolved. If it does not do so by the deadline, the state automatically waives all authority under federal law.

Murch said this makes the water quality deadlines perhaps the single most vital ones to the state. “If you miss it, you are losing the state’s one, once-in-a-generation opportunity to weigh in on these projects,” he said.

But emails show that months after taking her position, Howatt was not aware of the deadlines for the three dam projects that were in the midst of this water certification process, even though they were clearly indicated in Murch’s memos for each project and in the relevant department database, the Application Tracking System or ATS.

On Oct. 10, 2012, shortly after taking her new position, Howatt was having trouble locating the files for the Brassua project. The staffer listed in the ATS as being the project manager – Dawn Hallowell – responded that day to say, “I never had the file and don’t really know what the situation is.”

“I wish I could tell you more about it,” Hallowell added, “. . . or actually give you a file for review.”

On Dec. 3, 2012, a legal intern at the Conservation Law Foundation wrote Howatt asking what the deadlines were for the West Branch Project and another St. Croix dam in Vanceboro. Howatt didn’t know, so she reached out to Jim Beyer, an official in the DEP’s Bangor office who had been handling the St. Croix area dams. Beyer informed the foundation of the impending deadline: March 20. In a separate email to Howatt, Beyer said: “I have it on my calendar to send . . . (dam owner) Woodland Pulp a letter in March requesting a withdraw and resubmission.”

That never happened. In early January, Howatt took formal oversight of the St. Croix-area dams, although she indicated she wasn’t sure of their specific names. She still didn’t have the files for these dams, requesting Jan. 4 that they be sent down from Bangor. Later emails indicate that the Forest City files didn’t reach her hands until July 9, four months after the key deadline had passed for that dam. She apparently didn’t know who her counterpart was at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the projects until early August, when she asked a colleague for the name.

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