2017-09-22 / Front Page

Board seeks dam guidance

By Wm Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Amid word that two entities have stepped forward with proposals to take over operation of the three Mousam River dams in town, Kennebunk selectmen have agreed to hire Pittsfield-based energy consulting firm Kleinschmidt Associates to provide an overview of municipal options.

Selectmen set the price tag for the review at “not more than $14,000,” allowing them to limbo under the line that otherwise would have compelled them to put the contract out to public bid.

The 4-2 decision on the third iteration of an offer from Kleinschmidt since July 21 saw Selectmen Dan Boothby and Shiloh Schulte on the losing side. Board chairman Dick Morin abstained from the vote.

“I don’t feel like this is what we asked for. I feel like we’ve drifted too far away from what I think would be helpful,” Schulte said. “I’m not going to vote for this until there’s a clear understanding that they would present a full array of the costs associated with all the options, including the two that they’ve just sort of dismissed out of hand at the start.

“I disagree,” Selectman Ed Karytko said. “I think we need to get them through the door. We need to start this process.

“People out there hate government because this is exactly what government does, it drags things on forever,” he said.

In its proposal, Kleinschmidt wrote it did think it would be helpful for it to review an engineering report done on the dams in late 2015 — later updated in early 2016 and subsequently subjected to a peer review — in order to assign a cost to various options, ranging from operating the dams with newly installed fish ladders, to tearing out all three dams and letting any fish run free. Kleinschmidt vice president Jay Maher also wrote that “the energy benefits of the project would be very unlikely to justify the cost of a relicensing that resulted in new fish passage measurements.” That seemed to leave Kleinschmidt’s role to offering advice on the regulatory process the dams will be put through as part of the relicensing process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and offering costs on alternatives for keeping one or more of the dams in place as freestanding structures that would not longer produce electricity.

However, Town Manager Mike Pardue said Kleinschmidt would still offer a cost analysis on a full range of options. The firm’s contract language only meant to signify that it had already reviewed the engineering reports, and didn’t feel it needed to do so again.

“They believe some middle ground can be obtained, that it’s not just a remove or retain situation,” Pardue said.

Still, some selectmen lamented that Kleinschmidt has not yet seen fit to dispatch representatives to a single meeting in town.

“It’s like the Wizard of Oz, that never appears in this room. Maybe there’s a reason why they won’t come and talk to us,” Selectman Blake Baldwin said.

“Coming here to answer question is part of the vetting process for getting a job.” Morin agreed.

The two notice of intent (NOI) and pre-application document (PAD) packages submitted to FERC include one turned in Sept. 8 by local grassroots activist group Save the Mousam Keep the Kennebunk Dams LLC and one dated Sept. 12, presented by America First Hydro of Scarsdale, New York. It’s unclear if the latter NOI/PAD will be accepted. At a July 20 workshop, attorney Scott Anderson, from Portland law firm Verrill Dana, advised selectmen that the FERC filing deadline was Sept. 11.

If both applications are accepted, it would put both organizations in line to take over the federal license to operate the dams from Kennebunk Light and Power District, which sent notice to FERC on March 29 that it would not seek to renew is power-making permits, which expire in 2022. KLP has run the dams since its founding in 1893. The company, which provides electricity to most of Kennebunk and small parts of a few surrounding towns was originally created to help struggling mills by buying excess power to run the then nascent technology of electric street lights. KLP became independent of the town in 1951, the same year the Kesslen dam was converted from wood to concrete. Further up river, the Twine Mill generating unit and its dam date to 1980, while the generating unit at the Dane Perkins location was built in 1936. Its dam was last rebuilt in 1980. However, the Kesslen power generating equipment dates to the 1920s and KLP trustees decided it’s no longer cost effective to run the dams, given that they provide less than 2 percent of the power the company distributes to its ratepayers.

Belfast-based Surge Hydro considered taking over the dams, meeting with selectmen behind closed doors last spring, but walked away when the board declined to provide a $1 million loan to help defray startup costs.

At an Aug. 22 meeting, Albert Kolff stood on behalf of Save the Mousam to announce his group’s intent to take charge, saying it intended to involve the town, KLP, and Surge.

“Save the Mousam Keep the Kennebunk Dams LLC is submitting a notice of intent and a pre-application document (PAD) to FERC before the Sept. 11 deadline,” Kolff 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.”

Seletmen did not appear to take kindly to being committed, but Kolff said his group is acting on the authority of a November 2016 nonbinding referendum vote, in which 70 percent of voters said they want to keep the dams, while another 76 percent said they wanted to vote on whether we sell or own the structures.

“The town was hijacked, and I resent that,” Morin said. “What was submitted with our name on it had no authority to be done. None. Zero. Nada. Not one. And there’s a ruling that says if you give up your FERC license you can’t be part of another one. So that NOI just bit the dust, and the second one we don’t know anything about, because it just showed up at 11 o’clock this morning. I’d like to know if it’s viable or not.”

While many selectmen have expressed solidarity with the strong voter desire to maintain the dams, even if they no longer produce power, some expressed reservations about the America First Hydro filing.

“We don’t know who this group is, we don’t know anything about them,” Selectmen Christopher Cluff said.

“A lot of people would like to see the dams stay, but if it’s going to cost us a whole ton of money, that’s another story,” Karytko said. “It seems, quite frankly, with all that’s been going on and no other companies coming forward and nobody else out there, and all of a sudden this other company shows up, this is a little what I would call in my mind, suspicious.”

“I would agree with that,” Cluff said. “My initial interpretation is that this company is coming in and trying to take over to the assets for pennies on the dollar.”

Cluff suggested asking Kleinschmidt to review both the company’s FERC filing.

“If it’s a serious filing, then our hands are off this and it’s all on KLP, but it it’s not a serious filing, they I say we continue back down the of looking into what are our options,” he said.

That ended up being the direction the majority of the board voted for, but even some who raised hands for that directive wondered aloud if it was money well spent.

“The reality is that KLP owns the dams,” Selectman William Ward said. “Any firm that wants to take over the sames would deal directly with them. That would bypass us completely. Why would be spend money to evaluate anybody else’s PAD?”

Although Morin began the conversation by asking that everyone stick to the topic at hand — the Kleinschmidt contract — and not go off on tangents, the board did just that.

One was a salvo fired at environmental groups that have lobbied from the beginning to tear out the dams and return the Mousam to its natural state.

“They don’t care about Kennebunk, they only care about driving their agenda. That’s where I draw the line,” Baldwin said.

“You don’t get to draw that line, they are part of the conversation,” Schulte shot back.

Meanwhile, KLP trustees drew some ire for reportedly refusing to come to the table for a public discussion with selectmen over possible courses of action.

“It seems KLP has disappeared. They have washed their hands of this whole thing,” Baldwin said.

“If we think we ought to be involved for the sake of the taxpayers in this town, then we ought to put on our big boy pants and go talk to these people and not wait for them to come to us,” Karytko said.

Cluff, whose father, Duffy, sits on the KLP board, said the power trustees know the bureaucratic gears turn slowly where FERC is involved, even slower than Karytko had expressed impatience with, and they did not want to “have a meeting about nothing,” preferring to wait until there were actual developments to discuss.

“It’s not a meeting about nothing, dammit,” Morin said, expressing frustration that KLP president Jay Kilbourn had reportedly eschewed a public gathering in favor of a private meeting of chairman. Cluff said that in order to ascertain the mindset of the KLP board, he took that private meeting, where Morin would not.

“I did that because you had a hissy fit with them,” he told Morin.

“I didn’t have a hissy fit with them, I’m going to have a hissy fit with you,” Morin said.

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

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