The Somerset Mill in Skowhegan, which is owned Sappi North America, Inc. and employs more than 700 people, is shown on Feb. 08, 2017. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Gov. Janet Mills has edged back from her administration’s stance that a Fairfield dam may have to be removed amid fresh concerns around the effect of stricter fish-passage standards on the nearby paper mill.

The months-long fight between the Democratic governor’s administration and the owner of four dams on the river has escalated after the state unveiled plans to deny a key water-quality certification to the Shawmut Dam, citing insufficient ability for the endangered Atlantic salmon and other sea-run fish to pass through and endangering a federal license for the dam.

It has led lawmakers and some in the forest products industry to say the prospect of losing the dam endangers the Sappi North America, Inc. mill in Skowhegan, which relies on water from the river for processing needs and employs more than 700 people. Mills fired back in an “open letter” to millworkers in the Morning Sentinel on Thursday, saying the dam owner and critics have “wrongly suggested” the dam will have to be removed.

The governor’s letter is an attempt to tamp down a controversy that has swelled in recent days. It has not done that completely. While breaking slightly with environmentalists who have been aligned with her administration and believe dam removal is the only practical way to restore the fish, she is still taking an aggressive line with dam owner Brookfield Renewable.

Mills met with Sappi on Tuesday and provided assurances that her administration would not advocate for the dam’s removal, according to a statement from the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine. A company spokesperson said it was “cautiously optimistic” the water quality certification issue could be resolved. Brookfield has withdrawn the request and plans to submit another one, though that move will still trigger a one-year review process.

“It’s great to hear those words,” said Sen. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, who has been one of Mills’ biggest critics on the dam issue, on the governor’s letter. “But the [water quality certification situation] gives everyone a whole other year of uncertainty.”

The Mills administration’s stance on removing the dam has somewhat shifted in recent months. It worked to broker a deal between Brookfield, a subsidiary of a multinational energy giant, and The Nature Conservancy for the structures. But that fell apart in 2020 and the state then tried to change a river plan in a way that called for possibly removing all dams on the river.

Brookfield sued and Maine dropped the idea in April after finding out it had no authority to make the change. But it unearthed those same strict fish-passage standards this summer, initially denying the Shawmut Dam certification because the owners’ fish-passage modifications would allow 96 percent of fish to pass, not the 99 percent standard that the state wants and that Sappi and Brookfield deem unworkable.

Mills met with Sappi on Tuesday to discuss the situation, according to her letter. A company spokesperson said it was “cautiously optimistic” the water quality certification issue could be resolved. Brookfield has withdrawn the request and plans to submit another one that will trigger a one-year review process.

In her letter, Mills said dam removal is not needed for fish to pass through it successfully, saying a natural fish passage solution could help restore endangered Atlantic salmon to the river and maintain the company’s presence in the community. She also called on Brookfield to negotiate in “good faith” on the future of the dam rather than “fear-mongering” around the issue.

“Brookfield owns the dam and they must play a constructive role in protecting the mill and improving prospects for fish passage to meet state and federal standards,” she said.

Brookfield spokesperson Miranda Kessel said while the company was willing to meet with Mills to discuss the issue, the fish-passage standards still proved a barrier. The idea of a natural fish passage had not been reviewed, she said.

The state has made some concessions recently. While Maine Department of Marine Resources has said dam removal should be given more consideration, it also conceded a nature-like fishway alongside Brookfield’s planned fish lift may work and it has contracted with InterFluve, an Oregon-based consultant, to study the measure.

In July, Pierce Atwood attorney Matthew Manahan told the federal government that upgrading the mill’s intake system to accommodate lower water levels could cost $50 million and the associated downtime to make the changes would cost money. A Sappi spokesperson said it was unclear if any technical solution could fix intake problems caused by water level changes.

But Nick Bennett, a staff scientist at Natural Resources Council in Maine, one of the groups alleging Brookfield is violating federal law meant to protect endangered fish, said leaving the dam in place would threaten the salmon and Sappi could solve problems another way.

“We believe that even if the Shawmut Dam were removed, Sappi’s problems are likely solvable based on experience in Maine and other dam removals across the country, where municipal and industrial in-water infrastructure has been moved,” he said.