NEWS & OBSERVER
JUNE 28, 2016 4:59 PM
Environmentalists say Poliquin's bill harms fish project
A group working to restore native fish including alewives and Atlantic salmon to the St. Croix River says its work could be jeopardized if a Republican congressman successfully exempts a Washington County hydro system from federal oversight.
BY MARINA VILLENEUVE
AUGUSTA, MAINE -A group working to restore native fish including alewives and Atlantic salmon to the St. Croix River says its work could be jeopardized if a Republican congressman successfully exempts a Washington County hydro system from federal oversight.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin has introduced legislation to strip Federal Energy Regulatory Commission oversight of three Woodland Pulp mill's water storage dams in Washington County, along the Canadian border. In an interview, Poliquin said he wasn't aware of the project's impact on the fish restoration work and would look into it.
Poliquin's legislation follows a FERC decision in March that found conditions for Woodland Pulp to obtain its new license, including new fishways for eels, were reasonable.
Dwayne Shaw, executive director of Downeast Salmon Federation, said federal, Canadian, tribal and environmental groups are working together to stock fish in the St. Croix River system and improve fish access at 19th-century dams.
Shaw said alewives are extremely valuable because they are "the most important source of lobster bait."
The dams in question are small, upstream storage dams whose flow provides some power to Woodland Pulp's downstream hydroelectric facility. Woodland Pulp — which is owned by a Hong Kong investment group and employs 400 Maine residents — says licensing costs make it too expensive to operate the dams anymore.
A federal appellate court in 2003 agreed with a FERC ruling that the dams provide enough power to require a license.
Woodland Pulp says it's a choice between getting FERC exemption or shuttering the dams altogether — a move critics and supporters alike say would devastate the local economy and regional ecology.
"Woodland Pulp doesn't want to do that," said Matt Manahan of Pierce Atwood, speaking on the company's behalf.
Opponents are concerned that Poliquin's bill will limit public oversight of dams and water and lead to a diminished or abandoned fish program. Paul Bisulca, a Penobscot Indian Nation member working with the Passamaquoddy Tribe on the project, acknowledged FERC can be "cumbersome" but said it provides deeper oversight than state agencies.
Bisulca questioned the state's commitment to managing alewives, noting a law that banned alewives from the St. Croix for 18 years. Maine's Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department didn't respond to requests for comment.
Poliquin's press release said new FERC licenses will increase the company's costs by more than $1 million a year. But FERC reports show a $190,830 increase.
Poliquin's spokesman said it'd cost Woodland Pulp more than $1 million to buy off-grid replacement power if it closes the dams. Poliquin, noting support from labor unions and Washington County legislators, said the dams' unique situation deserves FERC exemption.
"I will always support local jobs and our local environment, and that's what this is," Poliquin said.