Friday, December 6, 2013
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has again missed critical deadlines and cost the state its authority to set terms in the federal relicensing of dam projects, raising concerns for environmentalists and at least one key lawmaker.
In this May 2011 file photo, David Swayze of New York City fishes in Grand Lake Stream, Maine. Maine now has no say over the terms of the 25-year licenses for two storage dams and two dikes that control water levels and flow in Grand Lake and Sysladobsis Lake in Washington County, one of Maine's premier areas for landlocked-salmon fishing, and a dam at Forest City Township, on the Maine-New Brunswick border, because the Maine Department of Environmental Protection has again missed critical deadlines.
Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer
Maine now has no say over the terms of the 25-year licenses for two storage dams and two dikes that control water levels and flow in Grand Lake and Sysladobsis Lake in Washington County, one of Maine's premier areas for landlocked-salmon fishing, and a dam at Forest City Township, on the Maine-New Brunswick border.
The dams are owned by Woodland Pulp LLC, which uses them to store and release water that generates power at the paper company's Grand Falls and Woodland dams downstream.
Dam relicensing is a federal issue, but states can dictate terms on water quality issues -- including seasonal water levels affecting recreation, fish spawning and fish passage -- under a provision of the federal Clean Water Act.
By missing two March 2 filing deadlines, the DEP irrevocably waived its authority over the dam relicensing in Washington County.
On Monday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission posted letters from the DEP, which said that it had missed the deadlines, and that it was "completely unintentional on the department's part."
The letters, dated Aug. 19 and signed by DEP land resource division director Mark Bergeron, blamed personnel changes in August and October 2011 for "miscommunication between me and department staff regarding the deadline."
After missing the deadline, the department asked "Woodland Pulp LLC and their consultants" to take action to reset the clock by a year, Bergeron wrote, but "to date, they have not been willing to do that."
In an interview, Bergeron said the development, while regrettable, will have no adverse effects because the state has not had concerns with how the dams are operated or with water quality and the health of fish in the affected lakes. He said he was unaware of any concerns among fishermen or other groups with an interest in the lakes.
"The net effect (of the missed deadline) on the ground would be zero," Bergeron said.
But Sen. Jim Boyle, D-Gorham, a co-chairman of the legislative committee that oversees the DEP, said he is concerned about the missed deadlines.
"In my experience, the staff at these departments know when the deadlines are, and they have long lead times. It troubles me that we are missing deadlines on three different situations," he said. "One of the concerns we raised with the commissioner earlier this year is: Do you have enough staffing?"
'WHO IS MINDING THE STORE' AT DEP?
In November 2011, the DEP lost its authority over the terms of the relicensing for the dam controlling Flagstaff Lake in western Maine, where low water levels in the summer have led to dust storms and wreaked havoc on the tourism economy of Eustis and other lakeside communities.
At the time, a DEP spokeswoman claimed that the missed deadline was an accident, "something that was lost sight of during the transition of leadership" in the department.
But internal documents and the recollections of key staffers subsequently revealed that DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho and other key officials had been fully and repeatedly informed about the dam and its deadlines.
DEP emails showed that Aho, who previously was a lobbyist with the Pierce Atwood law firm in Portland, had even met with the attorney for the Flagstaff dam's owner, her former Pierce Atwood colleague Matt Manahan, who briefed her on the issue.
DEP staff members at various levels subsequently got reminders of the impending deadline, including one the day before the Nov. 15 deadline from Assistant Attorney General Jan McClintock alerting them to the situation and its ramifications. No action was taken.
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