2017-10-20 / Front Page

Board: Wait and see about Mousam

By Wm Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — After months of wondering how, and even if, to involve themselves in the potential decommissioning of the three power-generating dams on the Mousam River, Kennebunk selectmen elected to adopt a wait-and-see approach as others vie to take over the federal energy license from the Kennebunk Light and Power District (KLP).

At a special workshop Oct. 12, the board heard from Randall Dorman, senior regulatory officer for Pittsfield-based energy consulting firm Kleinschmidt Associates.

That firm was hired by the board at a cost of $14,000 to review and comment on an assessment commissioned by KLP from Wright-Pierce Engineering of Portland. That cost analysis of the various courses of action KLP might pursue with its Mousam River Dams was originally released in October 2015 and revised in May 2016. That report was peer reviewed by by GZA GeoEnvironmental Inc. of Norwood, Massachusetts, in June 2016.

“I will lead with the conclusion that we would generally accept the overall conclusion of that report, and GZA’s review, I think, validated that many of the assumptions in there are reasonable,” Dorman said. “In this sort of modeling, you can quibble a lot about the different assumptions, but if your alternative is relicense and you have to do fish passages at all at the sites, versus removal, removal is better economically. The numbers are pretty clear. You can play with the assumptions back and forth, but if you stay within a reasonable case, it’s pretty open and shut.”

That announcement was taken as confirmation by those who have advocated since the beginning for returning the Mousam to its natural state, at least below the other non-KLP dams that would remain in place upriver from Kennebunk.

“I think the big headline coming out of this is that Kleinschmidt completely disregarded the economic analysis of the Save the Dams group,” wrote John Burrows of the Mousam and Kennebunk River Alliance, in an Oct. 16 email to the Post.

“They fully supported the analysis that was done by Wright Pierce, and then peer-reviewed by GZA. This should once and for all resolve this huge and confusing issue. The analysis by [Save the Mousam spokesman] Albert Kolff is just plain wrong and the assertions that have been made that the Wright Pierce/GZA numbers are somehow off by millions and millions of dollars — and the absolutely absurd contention that it would somehow cost less to keep the dams — are completely false.

“Remember, Kleinschmidt was the firm that Save the Dams advocated for hiring as a way to get the ‘real numbers’ put on the table,” Burrows wrote. “The Kleinschmidt representative also very much validated the work, approach, and decisions that the Kennebunk Light and Power District has done over the past several years. Hopefully some of the KLP critics will take notice of that.”

In its 90-page report, Wright-Pierce predicting it could cost as much as $11.68 million to relicense the dams. Much of that money would be spent on a likely federal requirement to install fish ladders at all three sites. Adding interest and inflation over the life of bonds needed to fund the project could push that cost as high as $16.9 million, Wright-Pierce said.

Surrendering the FERC license and tearing down the dams was predicted to be the least costly option, pegged at a net cost of $1.85 million, requiring a $2.5 million bond issued by KLP.

However, many local residents are concerned that tearing out the dams will reduce water levels along the Mousam through Kennebunk, impacting riverfront property values.

Kolff has spoken as several selectboard meetings on behalf of Save the Mousam Keep the Kennebunk Dams LLC, a grassroots activist group that rose to oppose removal of the dams.

That group successfully petitions last year to get a trio of referendum questions on the November ballot, votes which showed roughly 70 percent of voters in favor of leaving the dams in place. Save the Mousam also has succeeded in placing two people inclined toward its views on the KLP board of directors in each of the last two June election cycles.

On Sept. 8 the group when one step further, filing a notice of intent (NOI) and pre-application document (PAD) package with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to take over KLP’s power-generating license with the current one expires in 2022. The KLP board formally notified FERC in March that it would not embark on the five-year relicensing process, having voted unanimously to take that step in June 2016, just after the first Save the Mousam ally was voted onto the board, but before he was sworn in to take office.

Much to the chagrin of selectmen, the Save the Mousam NOI/PAD calls on a collaborative operational agreement between the town and KLP, as well as Surge Hydro, a Belfast-based company that met with selectmen earlier this year to discuss taking over the dams, but ultimately backed off when selectmen declined to commit the town to a million dollar loan to defray Surge’s startup costs. Board members have publicly balked at being committed by Save the Mousam in its NOI/PAD without their consent.

A second firm, presumably not calling on municipal support, has also filed paperwork to take over KLD’s FERC license. America First Hydro of Scarsdale, New York submitted an NOI/PAD package of its own Sept. 12.

Kennebunk selectmen will not wait out that process to see which firm, if either, gains FERC’s favor.

“Mr. Dorman encouraged the board to not invest taxpayer dollars in this matter at this time as the FERC process unfolds over the next many months,” Town Manager Michael Pardue wrote in an Oct. 17 email. “That process will include the vetting of the two recently filed NOI/PAD’s. Kleinschmidt Associates, town of Kennebunk legal counsel, and town officials will monitor the FERC proceedings and be prepared to intervene if and when appropriate.”

At its Sept. 26 meeting, KLP directors voted unanimously to also file a motion to intervene with FERC. Although called a motion to intervene, the filing simply means KLP will be kept abreast of all FERC actions on the Mousam River dams and allowed to comment.

“The motion filed is general in nature, with neither support for, nor arguments against, the issuance of a subsequent license to be issued to another entity,” KLP Executive Director Todd Shea said. “This motion has been filed to ensure that KLPD has a voice at the table in any subsequent discussions regarding the license for the project.”

Selectmen filed a similar motion last spring.

As to its review of the Wright-Pierce report, Dorman said two of the options considered in it — seeking a license exemption or ruling of non-jurisdiction from FERC, are “non-starters.” The latter option, he noted in particular, amounts to “Hail Mary.”

Dorman also said that a presumed FERC requirement to install fish passages if the dams are kept in place “is not a lock.”

“There are several rather quirky things about the river which mean that a fish passage is not necessarily a certainty,” he said. “It’s a small river and above the three dams there are two non-jurisdictional dams. So, there’s no regulatory hook to install fish passages at those sites.

Alewives are the most likely species under consideration, and while you can get them above the three dams [in Kennebunk] there is still no pond area below these two dams,” Dorman said. “So, while you are getting them upriver, you’re still not getting them to that really valuable spawning habitat.”

Even so, Dorman said all of the other federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which have “a lot of ways to push FERC,” will likely advocate for fish ladders of some type.

“The state also has tremendous latitude to put requirements in for really anything and fish passages would certainly be one,” Dorman said.

Dorman said there is an option known as “surrender in place,” in which the dams would remain, but power generation would cease. FERC could recommend fish passages in that case, but would have less authority to require them, he said.

Dorman noted that with two entities now seeking to take over the FERC license for the Mousam dams, the agency is in an “unusual situation.”

“I’m not sure FERC has ever been in this exact case. Normally, with a [license] surrender, nobody comes forward. Or, if somebody does, it’s only one entity. I can’t think of a similar competing situation under these circumstances.”

Dorman said it will likely now take “a couple of years,” at least, before FERC’s position comes into focus and it may be that it rejects both Save the Mousam and America First Hydro, coming back instead with a recommendation for decommissioning the dams.

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

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