In the recent column by Patrick Carleton, president of USW Local 4-9 at the Sappi Somerset Mill in Skowhegan, he outlines the struggles the mill is experiencing in working with the Mills administration in trying to rebuild its migratory fishway at Shawmut Dam (“Sappi union president: Mills should support dam relicensing,” Nov. 30). His piece clearly shows the regulatory hurdles and influence by outside special-interest groups that many of our companies in Maine face when dealing with the Mills administration.

While we more than share his concern regarding what is essentially the mill’s efforts to responsibly protect the environment and the diadromous fish in the Kennebec River basin, the author made some rather uninformed statements that unfortunately need to be corrected.

First, the facts. The mill’s owner, Brookfield White Pine Hydro, LLC., filed a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) permit application in January 2020 for a new license to continue operating the 8.65-megawatt Shawmut hydroelectric dam and make modifications to the dam’s spillways and deep gates to install a new upstream anadromous fish lift. In doing so, Brookfield said it would increase Atlantic salmon juvenile survival rates from 93.9% to 96%.

By August of 2020, however, the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) filed for intervention status, and other environmental groups also joined in protest of the dam. Their goal was quite obvious: citing water quality that was apparently good enough for us to drink, they wanted a fish survival rate of 99% that guaranteed nothing short of the dam’s removal.

And this is where it gets interesting. Touting the 96% efficacy rate — by far a much-improved standard than current levels to protect Atlantic salmon and other diadromous fish in the basin — FERC disagreed with the Mills administration and said in their July 1, 2021, Draft Environmental Assessment that the project would in fact actually increase juvenile salmon survival rates, stating that “neither NMFS nor Maine DMR demonstrated how [their] higher survival standards would benefit the downstream migrating Atlantic salmon smolt population.” FERC also said the new spillway would result in a 100% downstream survival rate.

In essence, FERC didn’t play ball. The Maine DEP decided instead to go it alone and issued a draft ruling in August stating they intended to deny Brookfield’s permit.

So what is really going on here? Despite the fact that the Sappi mill is only one of six major mills that remain in the state and employs more than 750 workers directly and another 5,000 jobs that go with it, environmentalists in league with the Mills administration don’t care about the Skowhegan mill’s survival and are trying to have the dam removed altogether. And Republicans saw this coming from a long way off.

In a March 2021 letter to Patrick Keliher, commissioner for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, my Republican colleagues Sens. Brad Farrin and Scott Cyrway raised serious concerns about the agency’s rulemaking process that would effectively modify the state’s river management plans to recommend the removal of two dams in the state. In doing so, the Mills administration was hoping to tie FERC’s hands since the federal agency would have to give the state’s modified plan substantial consideration.

Realizing what the Mills administration was up to, Sen. Farrin went even further and introduced L.R. 2047 a month later in April that would direct the DMR commissioner to stop the current rule-making process and reverse any of the agency’s action. Unfortunately, the measure was defeated by all Democrats on the Legislative Council with the exception of the Senate president in a 5-5 vote.

However, our efforts didn’t stop there. On Aug. 24, House Republican Leader Kathleen Dillingham and I sent a letter to Governor Mills outlining the potential impact of her administration’s unachievable — and more importantly unmeasurable — goal of a 99% survival rate, a rate not required at any dam elsewhere in the country. Such a regulatory action by our state’s government “would have a crippling effect on our efforts to attract new and expanded investment in Maine’s economy,” we wrote.

And just last month, the Kennebec River Alliance recognized the leadership of Sen. Farrin in his efforts to protect the dam and subsequently the mill in their recent November newsletter. “We want to also thank our regional delegation led by Senator Farrin, who has been a champion for the working men, women and families of this region,” the Alliance said.

Brookfield refiled their permit application on Oct. 15 with modifications to try to appease regulators, and Republicans will continue to stand by Maine’s companies, workers and families. So while Mr. Carleton is rightfully concerned about how this ends and we appreciate the message he was trying to convey, he unfortunately had it backwards and is blaming the wrong people.

It wasn’t Republicans who have been absent this whole time — we’ve been there every step of the way. Instead, it has been Democrats (with the exception of a few) and a Mills administration more concerned with special-interest environmental groups who have been trying to remove the dam all along and invariably risk the mill’s closure. If he wants someone to blame, perhaps he should start there.

Sen. Jeff Timberlake of Turner is the Republican leader for the Maine Senate.

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