2017-02-02 / News

Governor stands for area dams

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — A long-awaited joint meeting between Kennebunk selectmen and Kennebunk Light and Power District (KLP) trustees over the fate of three Mousam River dams recently drew one unexpected guest – Gov. Paul LePage.

‘We had no idea he was going to be here,” said Adam Cote, an attorney for the Portland firm Drummond Woodsum, hired by the two boards to act as facilitator for the session.

“I was both surprised and delighted that the governor chose to come to this at his own volition, because I think regardless of what direction the town should follow with regard to the dams, there’s going to be a cost,” said selectboard chairman Dick Morin. “The fact that the governor was here and was involved tells me there is an opportunity to look for state or federal assistance.”

LePage did pledge the state’s help in assisting Kennebunk as it tries to determine what to do with the dams now that KLP no longer wants to generate power with them. However, exactly what that means remains unclear. Asked Monday for specifics of what kind of aid the governor might have in mind, his spokesman, Adrienne Bennett, did not return an answer to the Post by the Tuesday deadline for this week’s issue.

At their regular business meeting on Jan. 24, Kennebunk selectmen were scheduled to follow up on the joint session, held Jan. 18 in the town hall auditorium, with a discussion of their own. That meeting, which took place after the Post’s deadline, was slated to start 90 minutes earlier than usual in order to include time for a follow-up with Cote and his co-facilitator at the joint meeting, Joanna Brown Tourangeau.

That talk was originally slated to occur behind closed doors, with the town citing state law that allows an executive session for real estate transactions, “if premature disclosure of information would prejudice the competitive or bargaining position” of the town. Also cited was the right of selectmen to enter into consolations with attorneys “where premature general public knowledge would clearly place [it] at a substantial disadvantage.”

However, Kennebunk resident John Costin filed a complaint with the board and Town Manager Michael Pardue, writing, “No course of action has been suggested in which the town of Kennebunk would be in a “competitive or bargaining position” with respect to the dams. Therefore there is no position to compromise.”

“If the town is aware of other parties or interests that might turn this into a competitive situation, I ask that you disclose that information,” Costin wrote. “Otherwise, I maintain that there is no valid exemption to the FOAA [Maine Freedom of Access Act] for this Executive Session.”

Costin send his complaint on Sunday, Jan. 22 and, almost exactly 24 hours later, Pardue replied to say the debriefing session with Cote and Tourangeau would be held before the cameras.

“Due to the board’s commitment to weigh all the options available to them with regard to the dams, they will hold their discussion in public,” Pardue wrote in a reply in his reply to Costin. “The Board will defer their plan to discuss a possible negotiation posture, and the related strategies, to a future executive session.”

Pardue added that selectmen had “planned to discuss strategies related to the potential purchase of a separate parcel of land unrelated to the dams,” during the executive session, as originally scheduled.” However, “to avoid confusion with the dam topic,” that item was juggled to occur after the regular open meeting.

Pardue did not respond by deadline to voice mail messages or emails sent Monday requesting comment. Maine’s public access ombudsman, Brenda Kielty, also failed to respond.

The meeting

About 100 people attended the Jan. 18 session between selectmen and their KLP counterparts, which began with a review of the three dams, all originally built to power adjoining factories now long defunct.

KLP was founded as a municipal electric company in 1893 in order to help the struggling Kesslen Mill adjacent to Route 1 by buying excess power from it and using that to run Kennebunk’s first electric street lights. KLP became an independent entity in 1951 and converted the dams from wood to concrete in 1954. By that time the district had grown to provide electricity to homes and businesses in most of Kennebunk, as well as portions of Arundel, Lyman and Wells.

When Maine deregulated electric utilities in 2000, it forced giants like Central Maine Power to become carriers only and divest themselves of all power-generating capabilities. But small “public power systems” such as KLP, which has just 6,599 customers, were allowed to continue making power.

Until recently, the Kesselin, Twine Mill and Dane Perkins dams produced about 1.5 percent of the power used by KLP customers. The rest is purchased by KLP from the grid and passed on to local ratepayers.

However, faced with the high cost of relicensing the dams with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — a five-year process that could cost nearly $12 million when accounting for a presumed requirement to install fish ladders — KLP trustees have wrangled for the last couple of years over how to proceed.

While the current licenses last until 2022, the long lead time to navigate the requisite red tape for federal licensing means KLP must notify Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by March whether it will apply for a new license.

Although it reportedly has yet to file that paperwork formally, KLP trustees ended nearly three years of public speculation on June 15, 2016, when they voted to stop generating power at the Kesslen Dam, due to the age and deteriorating condition of turbines located in the basement of the Lafayette Center – equipment that reportedly dates to 1923. At that meeting, the trustees also voted to not seek new power generating licenses for any of the dams. However, as of yet, they have taken no public position on what to so with the dams themselves.

At the general election in November, nearly 70 percent of Kennebunk voters said in a non-binding referendum – placed on the ballot via citizens petition – that the dams should not be torn down.

“Surrendering the license does not mean dam removal,” Tourangeau said during the Jan. 18 joint meeting. It is possible for one entity to own the dams, while another operates them, if power generation is to continue under some other entity, she said.

One possibility, often floated by river-front residents not anxious to see a drop in water levels beside their homes, would be for the town to take ownership of the dams, and possibly lease them out to someone else.

KLP executive director Todd Shea said that is possible. While KLP has, in at least two separate attempts, found no interest from other hydro firms in running the dams, “the license is open,” he said.

The arguments

Much of the joint meeting was taken up by dueling presentations from those for and against removing the dams now that KLP no longer wants to be in the hydro-power business.

The pro-dam group, Save the Mousam, was represented by Kennebunk residents David Wayne and Donna Teague.

“We know hydropower is a clean renewable energy and we would like to see [the dams] upgraded to increase our sustainability, instead of destroy it,” Teague said.

The pair also argued that, irrespective of the power making capabilities of the dams, they maintain a river profile in place for more than 125 years.

“The Mousam and its mills were really the lifeline of this community. Many of us believe these dams should be preserved for their historic value alone,” Teague said.

It also was noted that because dams outside of KLP control would remain on the Mousam above Kennebunk, the true “natural flow” of the river cannot be restored.

The other side, dubbing itself Free the Mousam, was represented by John Burrows, a co-founder of the Mousam and Kennebunk River Alliance environmental group.

Burrows presented evidence showing the Mousam is teaming with life from the Kesslen to the Atlantic, all of which is blocked from getting upriver where it naturally wants to go. Only by returning removing the lower-most obstructions on the river, he said, can those species thrive as they have evolved to do.

“We see the opportunity before us as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix something that we have,” he said. “The Mousam River that we have today is not healthy. It’s a broken, fragmented river. If we do restoration, we are going to benefit fish, birds, wildlife and people.”

The options

To date, the list of options for the dams has been largely limited to four, one of which has already been passed over, while another has been deemed non-tenable.

Relicensing the dams with FERC has been estimated in peer-reviewed numbers compiled for KLP by Portland engineering firm Wright-Pierce, at between $8.8 million and $11.6 million, counting both the cost of undergoing the regulatory review and the price tag for fish ladders Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would presumably require as a condition of its blessing.

KLP also could seek an exemption from Federal Energy Regulatory Commission which allow it to operate the dams with future need of a mother-may-I from the feds. However, while that would save money down the road, the initial price tag is expected to hover around the same $9-12 million mark.

Another option floated in the past has been for KLP to only seek relicensing of the Kesslen Dam, while surrendering licenses for the Twine Mill and Dane Perkins, further upriver. Wright-Pierce has ballparked that possibility at $4.3 million. However, Shea said the June decision to suspend power generation at Kesslen makes that option less viable than it might seem, given the additional cost of refurbishing and modernizing the century old equipment.

Simply surrendering all three licenses, which by all accounts appears to be the direction in which KLP is headed, would still cost ratepayers about $2.3 million, based largely on the cost of tearing down the dams.

Last spring, Wright-Pierce Senior Vice President John Edgerton said KLP would have to see bonds to cover the cost of even that smallest possible investment, predicting annual payments of nearly $173,000 — resulting in an annual hike of $15.55 in most residential electricity bills.

However, while no other options are currently on the table, the future may not be limited to four visions most commonly cited. The town could buy or otherwise assume ownership of the dams and maintain them as non-power generating structures, simply to maintain current water levels on the river, some have said. Alternately, the town could find a partner to run the turbines, although KLP trustees were non-committal at the Jan. 18 meeting about whether they would buy that electricity.

And there may yet be possibilities still to be discovered.

“You’re not backed into a corner. There are some viable options that haven’t been explored,” Cote said.

The availability of alternatives was the main message LePage brought to the table.

“I think you can have partnerships with the state,” he said, rising from a spot in the middle of the crowd, where he had sat by himself, almost unnoticed during the proand anti-dam presentation.

“You can have partnerships with the private sector,” he said. “There are a lot of alternatives that have not been explored. You may not generate electricity and I’m not suggesting that’s the answer. I’m just suggesting you may be able to keep your dams, because you’re dams have a lot of economic value to the community. I’m just suggesting don’t be so quick to give it up, because we’ve given up [in other cases] and I’ve see so much damage over the years.”

Referring to the 1999 removal of the Edwards Dam in Augusta, LePage said riverfront properties along the Kennebec River in Waterville and Winslow have since “lost tremendous value.”

“I heard tonight, ‘Oh, it’s great. We’ve really helped it [the river] out,’ but there’s times of the year you can’t even get a kayak from Waterville to Augusta,” LePage said.

The governor also said that that on Monday, Jan. 17, he sent a letter to the president, vice president, and select members of Congress, complaining about FERC’s “major overreach” in regulating hydropower.

On Jan. 19 the Post asked Bennett for a copy of that letter. In a Jan. 23 phone conversation, she acknowledged receipt of that request, and said she “might be able” to provide a copy. However, it was not made available before the newspapers print deadline the following day.

During his remarks to the joint meeting audience, LePage made it clear he’s a fan of hydropower over other forms of green energy.

“The Maine Legislature has made some terrible, terrible mistakes, because they pick winners and losers,” he said. “Frankly the legislature should be agnostic to technology. They should only say lower the cost without harm to the environment. If you do that, frankly there’s only two technologies that would show up — hydroelectricity and nuclear. That’s just a fact of life.”

Citing a Feb. 2015 hydropower report prepared for his energy office by Pittsfield-based Kleinschmidt, LePage said, “The technology is here that we can take the backbone of our existing hydro-dams and go in and bring new generation.

“So, I just say, let’s be cautious here. Let’s explore rather or not the federal government is doing the right thing,” he said.

However, the first step, Cote noted afterward, is for selectmen and KLP trustees to decide not just on a course of action, but a mutual map of how to arrive at a decision.

“Ideally both of you decide the same way, because we’re going to have a real hard time moving forward if the board’s aren’t speaking the same language,” he said.

Meanwhile, Cote also took pains to tamp down enthusiasm that seemed evident after the majority of the audience — save for one lone heckler — applauded LePage’s comments.

“I would encourage folks to not think there is a white knight, so to speak, who is going to come in here and say, ‘Hey, I am going to produce power at a cheap price and fix all of this,’” he said.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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