November 1, 2013

Maine legislators try to end missed dam deadlines

A bill would tighten oversight of the DEP when it comes to dam relicensing to keep the state from losing its say on water levels.

By Colin Woodard
Staff Writer

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2013 Press Herald File Photo/Shawn Patrick Ouellette The state Department of Environmental Protection missed the November 2011 deadline for using its authority to set terms for water levels at the dam at Flagstaff Lake in western Maine, shown with Bigelow Mountain in the background. Water levels affect waterfront property owners, fish spawning and passage, and recreation for a generation.

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After the retirement of longtime hydropower coordinator Dana Murch in the summer of 2011, dam relicensing was initially decentralized, with various dams turned over to officials in DEP regional offices and to others staying at headquarters. Mark Bergeron, the DEP’s land resource division director, said that was done because of a reduction in land division permit applications and the associated fees, which helped pay for the support staff.

Jim Beyer, who oversaw the St. Croix dams until early January 2012, said workloads in the regional offices became problematic. “I had three wind projects pending,” he said.

At headquarters, the land and water bureau also fell behind. Michael Mullen, the bureau’s director at the time, said they found themselves “up against a deadline” for the Flagstaff Dam in November 2011. He said the department made a “last minute” request of Florida Power & Light to take what is usually a routine action to reset the deadline by a year, and that, to the department’s surprise, the company refused.

“I have not been aware of anyone refusing to withdraw and refile when asked to,” Mullen said.

That’s because the alternative for dam owners is to have their entire application denied. But in this case, the DEP did nothing because, according to Mullen, “we would have had to write a denial order and we weren’t prepared to do that.”

“Out of the Flagstaff case we learned that we can’t wait until the hour of the (deadline) unless we have the denial order ready to go,” Bergeron said.

Still, department documents show that staff members in the various DEP offices subsequently remained on top of the annual deadlines for the other dams. That is, until late 2012, when the department reversed itself, hired a new hydropower coordinator, Kathy Howatt, and started recentralizing licensing oversight in Augusta.

The Brassua dam deadline was nearly missed in February, apparently because of confusion over what the deadline was. On March 20, the department missed the deadlines for both St. Croix-area dams, with officials unaware of their mistake for weeks.

“We did miss those St. Croix deadlines, and that was just a communications breakdown between Kathy, myself and Jim Beyer, who had been managing them before” from the regional office in Bangor, Bergeron said. “We’ve implemented some internal processes already for the upcoming projects so that we know exactly when they are and other folks are notified, even if the hydropower coordinator is sick or away. We’re on top of it as we speak.”

According to DEP records, the next water certification deadline is Feb. 13, for the Brassua dam.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

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