2017-09-01 / Front Page

New ripple in dam debate

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — While Kennebunk selectmen mull what exactly they want energy consulting firm Kleinschmidt Associates to accomplish on their behalf regarding the future of the three Mousam River dams in town, a new wrinkle has emerged.

With a Sept. 11 deadline looming to apply for federal permission to take over operation of the dams from Kennebunk Light and Power, selectmen decided in a pair of special meetings July 20-21 that they had no interest in getting the town into the electricity-making business.

However, options still existed for assuming control of the dams even if the generators were allowed to fall silent, in order to preserve the river profile as Kennebunk has known it for more than 125 years.

The board agreed to hire Pittsfield-based Kleinschmidt to conduct a peer review an engineering report done on the dams in late 2015 — later updated in early 2016 and subsequently subjected to a peer review — to help cement the best course of action.

At its Aug. 22 meeting, the board was in the midst of debating Kleinschmidt’s contract proposal when Albert Kolff stood on behalf of grassroots activist group Save the Mousam and dropped a bomb on the proceedings.

According to Kolff his group intends to file with the Federal Energy REgulatory Commission (FERC) for an opportunity to take over the power-generating license to be abandoned by Kennebunk Light and Power (KLP), current owner of the dams, in 2022.

What’s more, he said, the group intends to name the town of Kennebunk as a co-operator.

“Save the Mousam Keep the Kennebunk Dams LLC is submitting a notice of intent (NOI) and a pre-application document (PAD) to FERC before the Sept/ 11 deadline,” Kloff said. “Our introduction to the PAD proposes that KLP trustees, town selectmen, and Surge Hydro, work collaboratively with four memorandums of understanding to operate the dams, with revenue generated to pay for maintenance for the dams.”

The announcement appeared to catch selectmen off guard.

“It sounds like you want to speak for us, that we’re going to enter into this agreement. That’s what it sounds like to me,” Selectman Christopher Cluff said. “I would love to hear more about it, because I have questions about it — that you’re going to submit a notice of intent that names us as a partner when we’ve not had any discussions about that.”

“Well, what I’ve been doing is following the voters voices,” Kolff said, pointing to a nonbinding referendum vote held on the topic this past November. “When we have 70 percent wanting to keep the dams, and another 76 percent wanting to vote on whether we sell the dams, or own the dams, that’s the public speaking for you. And knowing that there is a deadline for FERC for meeting the requirements for anyone who wants to take over the license, FERC is interested in that proposal.

“They can review it. They will review it,” Kolff said.

“And then they’re going to come back to us and say, ‘What’s your plan?’ and we’re going to say we haven’t had any conversations about that plan,” Cluff said.

“The outline actually goes into great detail,” Kolff said.

“Could you provide us with a copy of what you’re submitting, so that at least we can know what is being submitted on our behalf?” Cluff asked

Kolff promised he would, held up a two-inch thick binder that he said was the application plan. Meanwhile Selectman Ed Karytko wanted to know how the Save the Mousam filing might impact the board’s potential deal with Kleinschmidt. But Cluff suggested any Save the Mousam filing with the feds would be more about hearing the board toward a particular outcome, rather than seeking to divine the best solution from a range of options.

“I think this is a political move to push us into something. That’s my interpretation,” he said.

But Cluff also presented a dim view of motivations from the other side, referring to environmental activists who have stumped over the past three years for a full removal of the dams as, “carpetbagging interest groups from outside of our community.”

Others in the audience, such as Ward Hanson and Donna Teague, said hiring Kleinschmidt is a “good first step,” but that it is just the first in a long journey that will have to involve selectmen and KLP trustees working together, something selectmen say has not happened yet, but for a single joint hearing in January.

“This agreement with Kleinschmidt is just the beginning of a five-year process with FERC on how we proceed. Collaboration between KLP and the town will keep costs to taxpayers and ratepayers at a minimum,” Kolff said.

KLP trustees voted in June 2016 to forgo renewal of the license, and formally notified FERC of that decision March 29. Since then the town has been embroiled in questions of what to do, with area environmental groups championing destruction of the dams and a return of the river to its natural flow — at least to the extent other upriver dams outside of Kennebunk will allow — and many riverfront residents bemoaning the loss of the current river profile.

Save the Mousam successfully petitioned a trio of nonbinding referendum onto the November 2016 ballot, which demonstrated overwhelming public support for keeping the dams in place. Even Governor Paul LePage has weighed in, reportedly pledging in private meetings with Town Manager Mike Pardue and selectboard chairman Dick Morin to have the state take ownership of the dams, to keep them in place.

Selectmen also had closed-door meetings with Belfast-based Surge Hydro, which they have since said asked for a $1 million loan from the town.

The reason for the financing need, Morin said, was because Surge calculated profit margins on any deal that kept the power generators running in the three dams to be “razor thin.” Selectman Shiloh Schulte went further, calling any effort continue operating the dams, “a losing proposition.” Selectmen ultimately ruled against speculating with taxpayer money and voted at the July meeting against trying to take over the FERC license from KLP.

It voted instead to expend up to $15,000 to have Kleinschmidt review the earlier engineering reports on the dam, and advise on what options the town had for keeping the dams in place as static structures, blocking the river flow but not generating electricity. A very large factor in that decision was said to be the potential cost of installing fish ladders, deemed to be a likely requirement to be imposed by state and federal officials — one mandate that could run to several million dollars.

However, in Kleinschmidt’s proposal, submitted Aug. 18, company vice president Jay Maher said, “We do not believe additional review ... would be valuable or informative for the town.”

“Based on our professional experience, we believe that the energy benefits of the project would be very unlikely to justify the cost of relicensing that resulted in new fish passage measures at the three dams,” Maher wrote, adding that such deals generally come off only when there is “clear and substantial benefit to critical resources, broad public support, and economic incentive for the owner.”

But the same is true of dam removal projects, Maher said.

“In our experience, removal projects that lack one or more of these key elements generally face significant resistance with resulting delays and additional costs for all concerned parties,” he wrote.

Instead, Maher suggested that Kleinschmidt conduct an “investigation of additional alternatives,” splitting that task into three parts — a review of the various regulatory options, a study and presentation of the alternatives, and, finally, having Kleinschmidt act as an intermediary to bring selectmen and KLP trustees to the negotiating table.

However, instead of a flat fee, Maher suggested an hourly billing package for its work, one that could vary depending on which of its employee did what. But that idea gave selectmen pause, in part because of the range of fees involved — from $62 per hour for Kleinschmidt’s office assistant, up to $235 per hour for the company president — and because Maher put no cap on the potential cost of its work.

Apart from predicting that the regulatory review could be completed in two weeks, Maher gave no timeframes for Steps 2 and 3.

“I don’t know that I’m very comfortable with that,” Schulte said, noting the rock and a hard place involved if selectmen set a spending cap that results in an incomplete project from Kleinschmidt, and the blank check that would give the firm permission to go hog wild.

Selectmen voted to continue the discussion to their next meeting, September 12, asking that Maher attend that session with a prediction of just how many man hours, and by which of its employees, his proposal would entail.

Karytko was the lone vote against continuing to seek guidance from Kleinschmidt, although selectman Dan Boothby questioned why selectmen are dipping their hand into the pot at all.

“I don’t understand why we’re driving the bus,” he said. “Why isn’t KLP taking the lead on this?”

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

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