PEMBROKE, Maine — Local residents were joined by people from other Washington County communities Friday in railing against and questioning a proposed project to build a dam-like structure across the Pennamaquan River to generate electricity.
Ted Verrill, president and CEO of Halcyon Tidal Power, and Ramez Atiya, a Utah physicist who is chairman and chief technology officer of the company, briefed the audience of about 70 people on the proposed project, then solicited questions and comments in a meeting at the town office that lasted about three hours.
In the two preceding days, company officials met with state and federal regulators to present information of about 45 studies associated with the project to assess potential environmental impacts. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must approve the study plan.
The proposed 1,616-foot, $125 million tidal “barrage” across the river between Leighton Neck and Hersey Neck would enable the company to harness the powerful tides of the Cobscook Bay and produce electricity with an array of underwater turbines.
The studies the company has proposed would be the “most comprehensive” ever proposed for a tidal energy project, Atiya said Friday. They would examine potential impacts on water quality and flow and the marine environment, including plants, invertebrates, fish and marine mammals. Some data would be tested with computer models to make predictions.
Atiya repeatedly asked people attending the meeting to reserve judgment about the proposed project until the studies are completed and the results analyzed, “so we can reach a dialogue on an informed basis.”
Verrill estimated that the project would create about 150-200 jobs during construction and that the facility would employ about 40-60 people to operate it. It could potentially draw tourists, he said, as similar projects elsewhere have done.
In addition, the town, which collects about $1.2 million in revenue annually from real estate taxes, would receive over $1 million yearly in new revenue from Halcyon, he predicted, although that figure would decline as the facility depreciates.
While two people did speak in support, most speakers, however, were against the project or raised questions about it. Those who spoke included residents of Pembroke, a mixture of people with long ties to the area, transplanted retirees and summer residents. The objections raised frequently generated applause.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Charles Gillies said.
Another speaker, Susan Treiber, criticized Atiya and Verrill for presenting “a lot of vague” information.
The project, even with the jobs it would bring, would create the need for more public services, argued Stephan Sanfilippo of Pembroke, originally from Brooklyn, New York.
“It’s hard to live here. … You have to work at it living here. … We love this place,” he said.
“We’re afraid that we’re going to lose this bay,” Deirdre Whitehead of Pembroke said.
“That’s a legitimate concern,” Verrill replied.
Atiya suggested the project could be a “showcase” for similar projects. The technology could be applied elsewhere to supply 20-30 percent of the world’s need for power, he said.
However, Newell Lewey, a resident of Pembroke who is a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, suggested that 40 years into the future people elsewhere may say, “Pembroke was a disaster. Let’s learn from that.”
“It’s scary,” another unidentified man said.
Ken Ross seemed to sum up the concerns of many residents and others when he said the issue goes beyond whether the project is technically feasible and if the studies show little potential environmental impact or impacts that could be mitigated.
“I think the biggest questions,” he said, concern the impact on the lifestyle of the residents as well as ecological integrity.
“This bay is the very last major unspoiled bay on the East Coast,” said Ross, who referred to it as both an ecological and national “treasure.” The project, if it goes forward, would be the beginning of industrialization of the bay, he argued.
In its 2010 filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the company estimated the facility would generate 80,000 megawatt hours of electricity annually. That is enough to provide power to about 13,000 homes, according to Atiya.
Verrill said earlier this week that he hopes the studies would be completed, the data analyzed, and the findings made available to FERC so that it can make a decision about permitting the project in mid-2016.
The studies should begin late this year or in early 2015, said Verrill. Construction, which would take about 15 months, could begin as early as 2016, and the facility could be operating by late 2017 or early 2018.