WINSLOW — The July 2008 removal of the Fort Halifax Dam from the Sebasticook River has come at too great a cost, an opponent of the project says.

It has cost taxpayers $945,000 to $1.6 million so far, displaced aquatic life and ruined recreational opportunities along the river.

The dam removal opponent, State Rep. Ken Fletcher, R-Winslow, has filed his position in a new document with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Fletcher, who owns property along the river and is co-founder of the Save Our Sebasticook group that opposed the dam’s removal, said he submitted the document to DEP Commissioner David Littel last week “so that the record is complete and public.”

He said state officials did not adequately consider the economic impacts of removing the dam during the review process.

“My intent was to provide detailed information on what has actually happened in Winslow so that the Maine DEP will be better informed for future considerations,” Fletcher said. “Unfortunately, the existing process does not actually measure and verify the outcomes as compared to the assumptions made in their decision process. As the old saying goes — if you don’t learn from your mistakes, you are very likely to repeat the same.”

The dam was owned by Florida Light & Power Energy, which has since been renamed Next-Era Energy Resources, of Juno Beach, Fla.

Asked to respond to Fletcher’s document, Steve Stengel, spokesman for NextEra Energy, said that the company “is in compliance with all the requirements and conditions imposed,” but he declined to comment specifically on the document’s claims.

Lynn Boutilier, administrative assistant for Littel, said the commissioner would not respond to Fletcher’s letter, but would accept the document. “It will be put in the record,” Boutilier said.

The 100-year-old hydroelectric facility was breached July 17, 2008, after seven years of debate, legal challenges and frustration by supporters and opponents. State officials required a fish passage on the river, by either a fish lift or dam removal, and power company officials opted for removal.

In his letter to the DEP, Fletcher indicates that the year and a half since the dam’s removal has revealed several negative consequences for Winslow residents in particular, and taxpayers in general.

On the cost to taxpayers, Fletcher estimates at least $945,372, which includes:

$114,997 the town paid as part of an agreement with the dam owner to account for the town’s share of replacing a sewer line that was under the artificial reservoir created by the dam and exposed when the water level dropped.

$30,375 the town accrued after the dam owner transferred ownership of 143 acres of newly emerged riverfront land to the town. The town paid $46,125 for title and survey work of the land and sold most of it to abutting residential property owners for $15,750.

$800,000 more than previously estimated to replace the Mile Brook Bridge on Garland Road, over the Sebasticook River, which is a state- and federally funded project. The bridge replacement is now expected to cost about $6 million total. State officials say erosion, caused by the dam’s removal, weakened one of the bridge’s supporting piers and required a complete rebuild of the bridge.

In addition, Fletcher says the total cost to taxpayers could be considered as high as $1.6 million if one considers the $725,396 project to demolish six homes on Dallaire Street, which are on a slope overlooking the Sebasticook River. The town purchased the Dallaire Street homes so the residents could move elsewhere, out of concern that the slope was not stable.

There’s no scientific evidence that the dam’s removal was a cause, but Fletcher says “there certainly is sufficient information to conclude that there was a probable relationship to the 26-plus-foot drop in water level and the movements measured on Dallaire Street.”

Fletcher also notes that the Fort Halifax Dam was a renewable energy source that produced 7 million kilowatt-hours per year. And after the 417-acre artificial lake drained, Fletcher said, “millions of snails, mussels and clams perished because they were stranded as the water receded,” while silt and sediment washed into the river and caused erosion.

For recreation enthusiasts, the presence of a free-flowing Sebasticook River that does not freeze in the winter has created huge problems, Fletcher said. Snowmobilers can no longer use the river as a key trail connection, while other winter uses such as skating and skiing have been eliminated, and in the warm months, watercraft use is also now diminished because of the river’s low water level, Fletcher said.

Despite those claims, removing the dam has “absolutely” turned out to be right choice, says David Hedrick of Waterville, a member of the Kennebec Valley chapter of the group Trout Unlimited, which supported free passage for fish.

Hedrick said alewives now pass freely up the river and the fish are being successfully harvested in nearby Benton.

“Because the river has come back to life and is more natural, it’s a long-term breeding ground for anything from Atlantic salmon to alewives,” Hedrick said.

Hedrick said Fletcher’s claims to the DEP ignore the fact that the owner, in 2001, “made a business decision that its asset was not paying its way.”

“It’s ironic that Mr. Fletcher at this point would be complaining about the costs to taxpayers when he and Winslow delayed things and (increased) costs for (the dam owner) with legal challenges,” Hedrick said. “It would have cost the taxpayers a lot less if Mr. Fletcher had been willing to accept reality.”

Still, Fletcher concludes that Maine citizens have endured “significant financial and related costs” due to the “unnecessary” removal of the dam, despite proposed alternatives of installing a fish-lift or selling the dam to the owners of the Benton Falls Dam.

“Unfortunately, the people of Winslow and taxpayers are left with the problems and costs,” he said. “This information is being offered to hopefully expand the Maine DEP’s understanding of what can occur so that future dam removal considerations will be more comprehensive and representative of what has been the actual experiences.”


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