The U.S Supreme Court’s recent ruling that the S.D. Warren paper mill must comply with state environmental regulations in regards to its dams on the Presumpscot River is the correct one.

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 to uphold Maine’s right to mandate water quality certifications as part of the federal licensing of hydroelectric dams.

In 1999, as part of the re-licensing of the dams, Maine required S.D. Warren, now owned by Sappi Fine Paper, to maintain minimum stream flows and install “passage” on its dams for migratory fish and eels.

The mill has fought the ruling through a series of appeals, saying the regulations shouldn’t apply because no pollutants are added to the water as it passes through the turbines.

Pardon the pun, but this argument doesn’t really hold water. The mere fact that that water is running through machinery exposes it to potential pollutants, and the state is right to want to regulate it.

“If I understand what happens as a result of the impoundment of the water and then its release, what comes out is quite different from what was put in,” Justice Ruth Ginsberg said at a hearing in February. “It’s kind of like you had a pot boiling vegetables, and then you put it through a food processor, and then what you got out would be quite different from what went into the food processor.”

The ruling also mandates that the mill make it possible for migrating fish and eels to get by the dams so they can continue upstream to spawn.

A mill spokesman said it would be costly for the company to alter the dams to ensure fish passage, but he could not provide an estimated cost for doing so.

But the Presumpscot Watershed Coalition, a partnership of state environmental agencies and local advocacy groups, estimated fish passage on just three dams could cost anywhere between $1 and $8 million. But that would allow an estimated 250,000 fish to get up the river to spawn.

While that certainly is a significant amount of money, it is certainly affordable for a large multinational corporation like Sappi.

The mill has been a presence here for years, and over that span of time it has made a lot of money for its owners. Granted, the mill is now a great deal smaller than it was in its heyday, but it is still generating profits for Sappi, otherwise the company wouldn’t continue to operate it.

It’s not unreasonable to ask the owners of the mill to give something back to the communities that have supported it for decades. Fish thrived in the river before the dams were built, and with a little work, both the fish and the mill could coexist to the benefit of all.

What’s unfortunate is that despite the ruling, the mill cannot be forced to install the fish passages on the five dams in question because of a sixth dam, the Cumberland Mills Dam.

The Cumberland Mills dam is a defunct dam that is not being used to generate power, but it still blocks the river, making any fish passages on dams in farther upstream useless because the fish can’t get to them. Some environmental groups are planning to ask the state to force the mill to either remove the dam or install fish passages on it, clearing the way for fish to get upstream.

The state should require the mill to install a fish passage on the Cumberland Mills Dam. Without one there, the other fish passages required in the licenses for the other dams are useless, as would be this week’s ruling of the Supreme Court.

Once again, it seems to come down to money. Mill spokesman Jeffrey Pina said the company was disappointed with the decision. “We thought the state’s ability to add more conditions on top of (federal) licensing was redundant and potentially costly,” he said.

Pina’s right, the improvements mandated by the Supreme Court in Monday’s ruling will be costly. But the mill has profited for years by using the river to generate electricity to power its plant, and it’s time for ownership to make sure the river can support life as well as generate power.

It’s only fair. After all, the fish were there first.

Mike Higgins, assistant editor

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