The Canadian conglomerate that owns most of the dams in Maine argues in regulatory filings posted Thursday that the Mills administration’s favored solutions for the rehabilitation of fish runs in the Kennebec River will be counterproductive and risk shutting down a paper mill.

Brookfield Renewable Power, a subsidiary of $600 billion Ontario-based global asset company Brookfield Asset Management, made the claims in filings with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which is considering whether to allow the federal relicensing of the Shawmut Dam in Fairfield to operate for the next half century.

Brookfield said there was no evidence that a fishway proposed by Maine’s Department of Marine Resources would be effective in helping endangered Atlantic salmon and other river-run fish swim past the dam to reach their spawning grounds. “To the contrary, there is evidence that a nature-like fishway will be counterproductive to fish passage at Shawmut compared with (Brookfield’s) proposal for a fish lift,” the filing stated.

“We want to ensure that any decisions made on the lower Kennebec River are well thought-out and evidence-based, Brookfield’s Maine-based spokesperson, David Heidrich, said in a statement that described DMR’s fishway proposal as “folly” and “rushed and incomplete.”

The Shawmut Dam on the Kennebec River. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The company’s filing is the latest development in a bruising multifront battle over the future of fish runs in one of Maine’s largest river systems and the survival of the last U.S. populations of Atlantic salmon. The struggle has pit Brookfield – which owns 38 hydropower dams in Maine and 5,300 worldwide – against state and national environmental and conservation groups and the Mills administration, which want four dams in the lower Kennebec removed to allow salmon to reach prime spawning habitat in western Maine’s Sandy River.

Asked for a response, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher said via email that the department was committed to protecting the fish and the Sappi mill. “We believe these goals are not mutually exclusive and that they can both be achieved through cooperative work,” Keliher said. “We reject the fearmongering employed by those, like Brookfield, who are wrongly trying to assert otherwise.”


“Maine has a long and proud history of ensuring that our critical industries can operate in tandem with our environment, and DMR is working towards that end,” he said. “We once again urge Brookfield to work in good faith with the state and other stakeholders to reach a constructive solution that works for all parties.”

Jeffrey Reardon of the conservation group Trout Unlimited said via email that the company was seeking to frame the issue around one dam and one species when in reality it is about the cumulative effects of four dams on salmon, river herring, alewives, shad and other river-run fish trying to reach the Sandy.

“It’s really disappointing to see Brookfield – again – focused solely on a single fish lift at the Shawmut Dam,” he said. “A narrow focus on the question of Brookfield’s proposed fish lift versus a hypothetical nature-like fishway is a distraction from what really matters – getting fish upstream and downstream past all four dams.”

Heidrich, the Brookfield spokesman, said the company had focused on the Shawmut in the filing because the proceeding at DMR is about that dam.

“Brookfield spent years and millions of dollars working side-by-side with regulatory agencies to develop and permit new fish passage proposals that would greatly improve existing conditions,” Heidrich said via email, adding that it wasn’t the firm’s fault that restoration was taking so long. “Regrettably, the series of lawsuits, filings, and political campaigns waged by some organizations have greatly slowed the pace of regulatory approvals, pushing back implementation and installation of state-of-art fish passage infrastructure by many years.”

The Maine DEP has the power to effectively block the federal relicensing of the Shawmut Dam by not issuing a requisite water quality certificate, which would force the dam to be closed and removed. The state must make its decision on whether to issue the certification and on what terms by October.



The Mills administration has argued that one or more of the lower Kennebec dams should be removed to make it easier for the fish to reach the Sandy, but also has indicated it does not want to do anything that might jeopardize the Sappi’s Somerset Mill in Skowhegan, which relies on water pumped from the reservoir created by the Shawmut Dam.

“Closure of this mill, and the resulting ripple effect across the industry, including job losses, would not be acceptable to me — and I will not allow it to happen,” Gov. Janet Mills wrote in a public letter to Sappi employees last August. “My administration’s commitment to the mill is clear and unwavering.”

DMR has proposed that Brookfield install a nature-like fishway at Shawmut similar to those the company has installed and promoted at two dams on northern New York’s Oswegatchie River. Brookfield says such a fishway would be cost-prohibitive at Shawmut and in the latest filing has asked DEP to allow them to build a modern fish lift instead.

The fight over the dams has been bruising.

In September, the Conservation Law Foundation and three Maine conservation groups sued Brookfield in federal court over alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act at the four dams. The conservation groups say that Brookfield has been killing Atlantic salmon at its dams on the Kennebec in violation of the law since Dec. 31, 2019, when its federal authorizations to kill salmon expired. In February a judge ruled the case could go forward and ordered the parties to be ready for trial in early July.


Brookfield fired back later in September with a separate suit in state court alleging that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection violated a binding 1998 water management agreement with the company. It argued that the Department of Marine Resources couldn’t work with other state government agencies to develop their positions, a stance Mills’ office dismissed as “meritless” and “a disappointing demonstration of the company’s continued unwillingness to partner with the state of Maine to solve this serious issue.”

A judge dismissed this suit on technical grounds, but the firm has said it intends to appeal. Brookfield again raised its legal theory that DMR can’t advise DEP on the dams in its latest filing.


In late November, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission announced it would conduct a new environmental impact study for the four dams, a move conservation groups had long sought. The federal agency – which reviews and grants dam licenses – said it would issue a draft of the new study this August and a final version in February 2023.

In April, a national conservation group, American Rivers, named the Kennebec, Union, and other Maine salmon rivers among its list of the most endangered in the country, largely on account of the presence of Brookfield-owned dams. “The future of Atlantic salmon now hangs in the balance,” the group’s director of river restoration, Jessie Thomas-Blate, said at the time. “If we do not address the harmful impacts of these dams, we will lose these iconic fish forever.”

Maine has been a nationwide leader in the restoration of river systems and the sea-run fish that spawn in them. With the removal of Augusta’s Edwards Dam on the lower Kennebec in 1999 and the Great Works and Veazie dams in the lower Penobscot in 2012 and 2013, alewives, shad, blueback herring and salmon had access to thousands of miles of river habitat for the first time since the early 19th century.

The alewife run into the Sebasticook, a tributary of the Kennebec made accessible by dam removals, is now the largest in the United States, with nearly 6 million fish, and a favorite bald eagle dining site.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story