The Lockwood Dam in Waterville is one of four dams on the Kennebec River that could be removed under a controversial policy change from the Maine Department of Marine Resources aimed at restoring the Atlantic salmon population.  Credit: John Holyoke / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — The owner of four dams on the Kennebec River sued the state of Maine on Tuesday seeking to halt a plan backed by Gov. Janet Mills that could lead to the dams’ removal.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources is in the process of imposing stricter requirements for fish passage on four dams located in the lower part of the Kennebec River between Waterville and Skowhegan with the aim of restoring populations of sea-run fish, including the endangered Atlantic salmon. It recommends that a federal regulator decommission and remove two dams and that another two be studied for removal.

A U.S. subsidiary of Brookfield Renewable Partners, the massive Toronto-based company that owns the dams, has decried the process, arguing that Maine undersold the significance of the rulemaking and accusing Gov. Janet Mills of retaliating after her administration’s efforts to broker the sale of the dams failed. A public comment period for rulemaking closed on Friday.

Brookfield made a narrower case as it sued the Maine Department of Marine Resources in Kennebec County Superior Court on Tuesday, arguing state law requires the amendment process to go through Maine’s agricultural and energy offices as well.

“Brookfield should not be put in the position of being forced to challenge before FERC the validity of a purported state comprehensive plan that is in fact invalid under state law,” the complaint reads.

The company is seeking to halt the rulemaking process while the case is handled in court. Spokespeople for Attorney General Aaron Frey and the marine resources department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The rulemaking process comes as one of the dams — the Shawmut Dam in Fairfield — is up for a license renewal with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The state has billed its proposed change as “nothing more than a guidance document,” but the federal agency has said it must weigh state plans when considering whether to renew dam licenses. Licenses of the other dams could be at issue this way as they come up for reconsideration.

Mills wrote a letter to Brookfield in March 2020 saying she was hopeful the dams could be sold, saying it was best to avoid “contentious administrative proceedings and litigation that draw public attention to the impacts of the projects.” But no deal was done and Mills has dug in on the state’s proposed changes, saying last week that Brookfield should meet the strict standards.

The process frustrated Sens. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, and Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, who wrote a letter to the state saying it misled the public about the proposed rule’s effect on the dams. They requested the state extend the public comment period, which it did not do.