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Conservation groups ask judge to stop dams’ operations on Kennebec River


A group of conservation organizations asked a judge Wednesday to prevent an international hydropower giant from operating three dams on the Kennebec River during a crucial migration season for Atlantic salmon.

The preliminary injunction filed in federal court is part of a larger lawsuit the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Conservation Law Foundation, Maine Rivers and Natural Resources Council of Maine are pursuing against Brookfield Renewable for allegedly violating the federal Endangered Species Act.

The groups are seeking for the dams to stop running from Oct. 15 to Dec. 31 and April 1 through June 30, when they say salmon are on the move.

The former period is when the adult fish are moving downstream to the Gulf of Maine after spawning; the latter is when young fish are headed downstream after hatching, according to the injunction. They are requesting the dams’ operations be halted until the federal government restores Brookfield’s “take” permit — which allows the company to incidentally harm a certain amount of fish through normal operations. Brookfield’s permit to do so expired in 2019, and the company is working to restore it.

The motion, if granted, would be a victory for conservation groups while the greater issue of the dams’ ongoing operations plays out in court.

An ongoing struggle over the fate of the dams has been playing out in federal relicensing proceedings for the Shawmut Dam in Fairfield, pitting Gov. Janet Mills and environmental groups against the company and nearby communities and businesses.

The state and conservation groups have argued the dams’ operations create barriers to the salmon while migrating, including exhaustion and making them more vulnerable to predators. But Mills, after putting forward policies that recommended the closure of the dams unless certain passage thresholds were met, is striking a more cautious tone after Sappi North America said the denial of a water quality certificate for the Shawmut dam could shut it down and lead to the closure of its Skowhegan paper mill.