The Shawmut Dam on the Kennebec River is seen Thursday from the Fairfield shore. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

FAIRFIELD — The relicensing process for the Shawmut Dam has been again delayed after the Maine Department of Environmental Protection denied the water quality certificate application for the dam.

The department issued a denial without prejudice Wednesday, saying the application lacks sufficient documentation and there is a potential for material changes. However, the denial is procedural, not based on the merits of the application and the application can be submitted again by the dam owner, Brookfield White Pine Hydro, a subsidiary of $600 billion Ontario-based global asset company Brookfield Asset Management.

“The department believes it is crucial to take into account all relevant and updated scientific information and analysis because a Department Order approving the application could contain enforceable conditions and timelines,” David Madore, deputy commissioner of the environmental protection department, said in an email.

This is not the first time there have been issues with the water quality certificate application for Shawmut Dam. Brookfield first submitted an application for the certificate in 2020, but withdrew it after the DEP issued a draft denial. The company then submitted a new application last October, and in the summer of 2022 the department issued a draft denial without prejudice.

At the same time, Brookfield has been working with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a new operating license for the Shawmut Dam and the National Marine Fisheries Service has been investigating the effects of the dam on Atlantic Salmon migration, which is also required for the new license.

Then in September, Brookfield amended its application to federal officials and submitted new information about fish passage measures to the state, modifying its water quality application, according to the letter of denial. Final analysis from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the fisheries service is not expected to be available for several months, however, federal law required the state to respond to a water quality certification application within a year — which in this case is by Tuesday, Oct. 18.


David Heidrich, a spokesperson for Brookfield, said that the company is disappointed in the denial, which will likely delay action on a water quality certificate for another year or more. Brookfield will review the denial and its implications before determining next steps.

“The denial unnecessarily maintains a cloud of uncertainty over the dam, the Sappi Mill, and the wider region,” Heidrich said in an email. “We remain committed to ensuring the continued availability of renewable energy; the protection of local, family-sustaining jobs; and the investment in new infrastructure that supports fish passage on the Kennebec River.”

The Shawmut Dam on the Kennebec River is seen Thursday from the Fairfield shore. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

In a statement Wednesday, the DEP said Brookfield’s amended application “provides significant new information about proposed measures Brookfield would take to protect Atlantic salmon,” and a noted that a separate analysis under the federal Endangered Species Act that is still pending.

“DEP will then consider these analyses, along with any response or other additional information Brookfield may wish to submit as part of its updated application,” the department statement said. “This process ensures that DEP will have the benefit of the most current and best available information when it acts on the merits of the (water quality certificate) application.”

The denial will not affect the dam’s operations now, but the surrounding communities must continue to await a final decision on the fate of the Shawmut dam.

The Shawmut dam, along with the other three dams owned by Brookfield in the area: Lockwood, Weston and Hydro Kennebec, have been criticized by environmental groups for harming the native fish species that migrate up and down the Kennebec River. Earlier this year, the national conservation group American Rivers said that the 15 dams Brookfield operates around the state — including the four on the Kennebec — are hastening the extinction of Atlantic salmon, an already endangered species in the United States.


But supporters of the dams say the structures are critical to the economy of the region. Last month, the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce released an economic analysis that determined the four regional dams on the Kennebec River, and the two paper mills that rely on them, contribute to more than 1,200 jobs that provide employee earnings of $158.5 million.

In particular, the Shawmut Dam creates a reservoir that serves the Sappi paper mill in Skowhegan. Representatives from Sappi have said that if the dam is removed, it would lower the water level 15 to 20 feet, making it too low for the mill to use.

The issue has also become a political flashpoint as the November election creeps closer, particularly in the heated gubernatorial race.

At a candidate forum Tuesday, former Gov. Paul LePage stated again that Gov. Janet Mills is trying to shut down the dams, and said that if Mills is elected, the dams will be removed and Sappi will close the mill.

Mills has repeatedly stated that she does not support measures to close the dam or the paper mill. Madore said that Mills called and spoke with Sappi management and the head of the Sappi union this week to update them on the latest action and reaffirm her support for Sappi and that she “will not support any action in the relicensing process that would jeopardize the future of the Sappi Mill.”

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