Workers start to breach Old Town dam

Nick McCrea | BDN
Crews start to hammer away at the Great Works dam on Monday morning. View live video →
Posted June 11, 2012, at 9:30 a.m.
Last modified June 11, 2012, at 12:38 p.m.
United States Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar speaks before the Old Town dam removal begins on Monday, June 11, 2012.
United States Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar speaks before the Old Town dam removal begins on Monday, June 11, 2012.

BDN reporters Nick McCrea and John Holyoke and photographer Kevin Bennett are in Old Town this morning preparing for the breach of the Great Works dam, part of the Penobscot River restoration project. Follow along with live coverage:

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The Great Works dam stretches across the Penobscot River from Bradley to Old Town. The Veazie dam also is slated for removal in 2013 and 2014, the Milford dam will get a new fish lift and a fish bypass will be built at the Howland dam.

The breaching of the Great Works dam is the first visible step in a 13-year effort to open nearly 1,000 miles of habitat to 11 species of sea-run fish that haven’t had open, easy access to sections of the Penobscot River for two centuries.

The project, which will remove some dams while increasing hydropower production of others is overseen by the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, a nonprofit organization.

Dams, overfishing and pollution have drastically cut the number of sea-run fish that make it north of Bangor in the Penobscot. Before humans began altering the river, between 75,000 and 100,000 Atlantic salmon traveled past Bangor on their annual runs, according to the restoration trust’s deputy director, George Aponte Clarke. Today, only about 1,300 make it that far. Between 14 million and 20 million river herring made it upriver in the past, while fewer than 1,000 make it today.

The dam removals will not reduce energy production on the Penobscot, according to the trust. Black Bear Hydro Partners LLC, the owner of the dams, received approval in September 2011 to upgrade the Stillwater and Orono dams to eliminate the energy production gap left by the demolition of the Great Works and Veazie dams.

The company estimates the upgrades will boost the energy capacity of the Orono dam from 2.78 to 6.52 megawatts and the Stillwater dam from 1.95 to 4.18 megawatts.

That hasn’t kept Gov. Paul LePage from criticizing the work. The governor chided the dam removal plans during a press event Wednesday at which he announced the first listing of Maine’s “business-friendly” communities.

“I think it’s irresponsible for our country to be taking out hydro dams,” LePage said. “I think we need to put more in.”

LePage said it was “absolutely appalling” that lawmakers this spring couldn’t come to an agreement on a bill that sought to lift a 100-megawatt cap for qualifying hydropower and other forms of energy generation, such as fuel cells and tidal generation.

“They should be ashamed,” he said.

The complex river restoration deal got its start in 1999, after Pennsylvania-based PPL Corp. purchased dams along the Penobscot River. The company soon started having discussions with the state, Penobscot Indian Nation, U.S. Department of the Interior and several Maine conservation groups to hash out solutions to issues involving hydropower relicensing, migratory fish passage and restoration of the river.

Under the 2004 agreement, PPL would sell six dams in Milford, Orono, Stillwater, Ellsworth, Medway and West Enfield to Black Bear Hydro, and the restoration trust would later purchase the Veazie, Great Works and Howland dams.

Those deals came to fruition. In 2009, PPL sold the six dams and their associated hydropower assets to Black Bear Hydro for $81 million. The next year, the trust bought the dams in Veazie, Old Town and Howland for $24 million with plans to demolish the Veazie and Old Town dams and build a fish bypass in Howland.

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