Maine Department of Environmental Protection has rejected an application from Black Bear Hydro to certify the water quality of the Union River where it is affected by one pf the company’s hydroelectric projects. The certification is required by federal regulators who are considering whether to renew the company’s operating license for the dam. Credit: Bill Trotter

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Citing insufficient environmental protections, state regulators have denied a dam operator’s request for state support in renewing the dam’s federal license.

Because the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requires the state certify the effect of the Ellsworth dam on the Union River’s water quality, the denial means the federal agency is unlikely to approve Black Bear Hydro’s current application to renew its operating license for the dam.

The state Department of Environmental Protection cited the firm’s proposed draw-down levels from Graham Lake of less than 6 feet, and the impact such water level reductions would have on aquatic life in the lake, in its March 19 denial of the application. It also said that the proposal would have a detrimental effect on aquatic habitat in the river between Graham and Leonard lakes, and that it would not maintain required levels of dissolved oxygen in Leonard Lake.

In a statement released Monday morning, a spokesperson for Black Bear Hydro said the company is “actively evaluating the best path forward” in getting the needed water quality certification from the state.

“While we recognize this is a temporary setback, we will continue working to reach the end goal of renewing [the dam’s] FERC license,” Miranda Kessel said.

The Downeast Salmon Federation applauded DEP’s decision and said Black Bear Hydro’s own test results showed the dam was not meeting minimum standards for maintaining the water quality in the affected parts of the river. Black Bear Hydro is a subsidiary of Canadian firm Brookfield Renewable Partners.

“Maine DEP did the right thing here,” Dwayne Shaw, executive director of the environmental advocacy group, said in a statement. “Brookfield never offered up any information to show how it would eliminate these violations if its application were approved.”

Shaw said that the company is likely to appeal the DEP decision in state court, which in the meantime will allow it to continue operating the dam under current conditions, but predicted that the appeal is unlikely to succeed.

“Brookfield should now do the right thing and begin discussions in good faith over how it intends to operate these dams in an environmentally conscientious way,” Shaw said.

Downeast Salmon has criticized the operation of the hydroelectric project, which actually consists of two dams — one near the Route 1 bridge near downtown Ellsworth that generates electricity, and another a few miles upstream at the southern end of Graham Lake that controls the flow of water downstream.

The group has said that the dams do not allow for adequate fish passage upstream or downstream — which has inhibited the natural populations of salmon, alewives, eels and other fish species in the river — and the water levels in Graham Lake at times have been reduced too much to adequately protect the lake’s aquatic habitat.

In its application to FERC to renew its operating license, Brookfield has proposed to install some fish passage improvements and to abide by tighter restrictions on how much it can reduce water levels in Graham Lake but the salmon federation and other critics of the company, including several waterfront property owners on Graham Lake, said the proposals were insufficient.

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....