Environmental groups filed a long-teased lawsuit against a hydropower giant on Thursday, claiming four Kennebec River dams are violating federal laws by not allowing enough endangered Atlantic salmon to reach upstream spawning grounds.
The group, which includes the Atlantic Salmon Federation U.S., the Conservation Law Foundation, Maine Rivers and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, argue that Brookfield Renewable U.S., is operating those dams in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act. The law allows for companies to incidentally harm a certain amount of fish through their operations with a permit, but Brookfield’s permission to do so expired in 2019, according to the lawsuit.
The suit is the latest turn in a debate around the four dams that has focused on the Shawmut Dam in Fairfield. Gov. Janet Mills’ administration took a step toward removing the dams in March, withdrew the plan after Brookfield sued and then said in August that it planned to deny the operator a key water-quality certification. Mills backed off from that stance after Sappi North America ran an op-ed saying that could lead to the dam’s removal and close the mill.
That was the Democratic governor’s first major break on the issue with environmental groups who believe the dams should be removed. The suit, which was foreshadowed in May, asks a federal judge to declare operating the four lower Kennebec River dams illegal and to prevent Brookfield from operating them.
“Maine can achieve a healthy Kennebec River that supports expanding fish populations and meets the needs of riverfront communities,” the environmental groups said in a joint statement. But such a future would be possible only if Brookfield agreed to work constructively with the state on how to fix fish passage issues, they said.
The governor’s office previously suggested the dams should be removed if they could not guarantee 99 percent of salmon can pass safely through the dams. Brookfield has withdrawn its certification request and filed a new one, triggering another year-long review process.
Brookfield has long pushed back against the environmental groups’ assertions. It has also characterized Maine’s proposed fish passage standards as unreasonable and punitive, saying its own fish passage plan would allow 96 percent of fish to pass through.
Company spokesperson Miranda Kessel said the company was “disappointed” in the lawsuit and the plan was being reviewed by federal regulators on fish harm issues before a May 2022 deadline. She said Brookfield is committed to balancing fish protection while keeping the dams operating.
Brookfield’s species protection plan was rejected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2020 after federal and local wildlife and fishery agencies questioned its ability to protect fish. The company filed an amended plan in May and was given an extension, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has requested more information before reviewing it, according to federal documents.