One that will go

A US federal agency has ordered the demolition of a dam to protect regional ecology

Published: Wednesday 31 December 1997

the us Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in a landmark decision, has refused to renew the license of the 160-year-old Edwards hydroelectric dam on the Kennebec river in the northeastern us state of Maine. Moreover, the commission has ordered the demolition of the 3.5-megawatt dam at the owner's expence. This is being seen as a very important victory for conservationists. The commission was of the opinion that the obstruction posed by the dam to migratory fish outweighed the benefit of electricity generation. The commission agreed that the dam, which is situated in the city of Augusta, hinders the passage of fish such as sturgeon and salmon that struggle upstream to spawn.

"Today's order requiring the removal of the Edwards dam reflects a balanced view of environmental as well as social and economic considerations," said James J Hoecker, chairman of the commission that supervises the us power industry. Since a change in federal law in 1986, the commission is required to balance conservation, recreation and other environmental values with energy generation when renewing licenses. But this is the first instance when it has exercised its power to deny a renewal of license in a case involving a dam owner that wanted to continue operations.

Hoecker indicated that the decision to demolish the dam is not a bad sign for the hydroelectric industry that provides 14 per cent of electricity in the us. This was a special case involving a small amount of power generation and a great deal of environmental damage, he noted. Notwithstanding, the decision has important implications, especially for the Western states that have many large dams. Renewal of license of about 550 dams is due in the next 15 years. Many of these hinder the spawning routes of salmon and other fish.

"This is the first time the commission has said no," said Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which lead the the opposition to the dam. But the news has not been received so well by the hyrdoelectric industry. "This is a dangerous precedent," said James Evans, manager of hydropower issues at the Edison Electric Institute, representing investor-owned public utilities. He noted that hydroelectric power provided more than 95 per cent of the us's renewable energy. "Declining to issue a new license for a dam, or going even further to order the owner to remove the dam, are precedent-setting steps that the ( us ) Congress has not authorised in the Federal Power Act."

But the demolition of the Edwards dam would not be very easy. The Edwards Manufacturing Company, which owns the dam and holds the license along with the city of Augusta, plans to appeal the commission and if need be in court, said Mark Isaacson, the company's vice president. Isaacson said that under the 1920 federal law that governs dam licensing, if the government wants to deny renewal, it must compensate the licensee for its net investment. That will amount to us $6-10 million for Edwards Manufacturing, he estimated. But the energy commission ruled that it was within its powers to not only deny the compensation but also to order the company to pay for the demolition. This is expected to cost more than us $2 million. Moreover, the company will have to pay for any environmental damage caused by the demolition.

"Why do they think they can get away with it?" Isaacson implored. "Because they are so much bigger than we are.We are a small private company with four employees." Indeed, the forces in the fight over the dam have not been evenly matched. A coalition of environmental groups, state agencies including Maine's governor, and federal agencies right up to the secretary of the interior, all advocated the demolition of the dam.

Before the dam was built in 1837, the Kennebec river was extraordinarily rich in aquatic life. It provided a migratory route and spawning grounds to virtually all the fish species that struggle upstream to breed in northeastern us. The dam led to the destruction of their habitat and fish ladders installed later did little to restore the stocks. In recent years, efforts have been made to improve water quality and to help migrating fish return with fish lifts. In its application for renewal of license, Edwards Manufacturing offered to install new and improved ways to help fish get upstream to spawn.

But environmentalists responded with 7,000 pages of arguements saying that some species, such as the endangered shortnose sturgeon and the Atlantic sturgeon, could not effectively use the fish passages. Also, returning the river to its natural state would restore more than 24 km of river habitat that is favoured by several species, they pointed out.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.