Kennebunk files dam letter with feds
KENNEBUNK — Kennebunk selectmen voted unanimously April 11 to file as an “intervener” in any and all federal action on the three Mousam River dams in town, but only after a protracted debate on wither a letter sent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) should state explicitly that the town might be interested in taking ownership of the dams.
That letter was triggered by a March 29 notice sent to FERC by Kennebunk Light and Power District (KLP), which now owns the dams, that it does not wish to relicense them for hydropower generation. According to Jay Kilbourn, president of the KLP Board of Trustees, the power district now has three years to file a formal application to surrender its FERC license. The current operating license expires in 2022. Until then, any entity can file with FERC to relicense the dams for making electricity, assuming an ownership deal can be worked out with KLP, which could to anything from selling or leasing the dams, to letting them stand as is, to actually tearing them down, although any option that involves keeping the dams in place may end up with a federal mandate attached to install fish ladders.
According to Town Manager Michael Pardue, the town’s FERC letter, with its motion to intervene,” sounds stronger than it actually it is. In this case, to intervene only means the town is asking FERC to keep it abreast of any future filings and actions related to the dams.
“It does not declare an interest in any property in any way whatsoever,” he said.
However, at least one selectmen understood the town does have at least some interest in taking on the dams if KLP no longer wants them.
“I am just a little bit confused,” Selectman Ed Karytko said, referencing a previous meeting attended by KLP Executive Director Todd Shea. “The first thing I asked was whether it would be mentioned in their document that the town has at least an interest in the dams, and Todd said yes. And, from what I can see, that did not happen.”
“Right, it did not happen,” Selectman Christopher Cluff said. “Based on my understanding their attorney and our attorney said this is a better course of action.”
“My only concern here is how does FERC know there’s a possibility we may . . .” Karytko began, before Cluff cut him off to read from the letter, which references the placement of the dams in Kennebunk, the number of people in town who get a portion of their electricity from the dams — actually only about 2 percent of all power KLP distributes — and the November 2016 referendum vote in which town residents declared an overwhelming preference, with 70 percent in favor, of at least keeping the dams in place.
“This is not binding us to any interest,” board chairman Dick Morin said of the letter. “This is saying we have the option, but not a mandate.”
“I’m just a little skittish,” Karytko said, explaining his fear that if the town does not say explicitly it may want to take ownership of the dams, FERC may proceed as if it could care less who owns them, or even if they get dynamited.
Selectmen continued to debate the wording of the letter, with some like Morin and Cluff assuring Karytko that the attorneys hired to draft it knew what they were doing.
At that, audience member Donna Teague, a resident of Oak Bluff Road, pointed out that one of the town’s “expert attorneys,” Adam Cote of the Portland firm Drummond Woodsum, also does work for KLP. In fact, he recently spent two hours in executive session with KLP trustees regarding its new venture into solar power, she said.
“That to me, and to many people, raises a real issue about conflict of interest,” she said.
“At some point, you’re right, if our interests and the interests of KLP diverge, then clearly there will be a conflict of interest,” Selectman Blake Baldwin said.
“I would suggest that they are already diverging,” Teague replied.
Karytko wanted to know the current status of the town’s potential interests in the Mousam dams beyond merely being kept abreast of future FERC filings. Cluff said that in a previous executive session, selectmen asked Pardue to gather information “on a few scenarios we wanted to run through.”
“I think Mike [Pardue] and his staff are still working on that and I hope at some future point that will be brought back to us for discussion,” Cluff said.
Pardue nodded, indicated Cluff’s presumption was correct.
Meanwhile, Water Street resident Sharon Staz, a former general manager for KLP, said selectmen “are exactly where you need to be.”
“I speak from 30 years of experience in working with FERC on a number of issues due to my past employment,” she said. “This [letter] gives you the opportunity to see everything that is going to be enmeshed in this process, and it gives you the opportunity to have all the information that you are going to need to continue your deliberations as to what the future of these dams might be, from the viewpoint of the town, and of you as elected officials.
“So, it’s not closing any doors for you. It’s opening many does for you,” Staz said. “And at this point you don’t have the knowledge, or any contracts, to lay out any plan. This gives you the opportunity to be a part of the process so you can weigh and evaluate what you are going to be doing in the future.”
“So, this [letter] gives us a chance to be a part of the proceedings?” Baldwin asked.
“Right,” Staz said.
“I just want to make sure, either way, that one side is not being slighted or has a disadvantage over the other side, because we know that there are two sides to this picture,” Karytko said. “That is the only thing I want to be careful about.”
At that, Morin closed off debate by stressing when push comes to shove, a public vote will decide if the town ever intervenes in the fate of the dams in a more practical way.
“Again, to reinforce, whatever decision is going to be made is going to be made in the polls,” he said. “It’s not going to be made by this board. We’re keeping our fingers in the process, but whatever the final disposition is, it will be decided by the voters of this community and not by this seven-person group.”