Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher (at podium) listens to a fisherman at a public meeting in Brewer on Jan. 7, 2014. Keliher's agency on Thursday said it would drop a plan calling for the removal of up to four dams on the Kennebec River after the state realized it lacked the proper authority. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine has dropped a controversial Kennebec River plan that called for the removal of up to four dams after state marine officials realized they did not have the authority to amend the plan under state law.

Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher conceded that on Thursday, less than two weeks after a public comment period ended on a set of state rules that would have strengthened fish passage requirements for dams along the river, which the endangered Atlantic salmon uses to get to historic spawning grounds.

The U.S. subsidiary of Toronto-based Brookfield Renewable partners, which owns the four dams in question, said those standards would be nearly impossible to comply with and would force their removal. It sued the marine resources department last week in Kennebec County Superior Court over the process, arguing it overstepped its authority.

Keliher effectively agreed on Thursday, saying the state mistakenly developed the plan under a law that does not give it the requisite authority. The error was discovered after the lawsuit was filed and while the state was doing a legal review of the new rule after the comment period closed, he said.

Maine still wants to pursue ways to restore fish populations, Keliher said on Thursday, but it will be pursuing any changes through a different law. Keliher said the state will be more proactive in speaking with employers who rely on the river for power, communities and others. He said dam removal may be the best way to restore fish populations, but the state will explore other options.

“We’ve never seen this kind of response before,” Keliher said, referring to the roughly 1,100 comments the proposal prompted.

The rules were backed by conservationists and defended by Gov. Janet Mills. But while regulators said they were merely procedural and would lead to no imminent charges, the federal agency that licenses the dams said the document that the state wanted to change is taken into account in those proceedings. The Shawmut Dam in Fairfield is up for renewal now.

Keliher defended that stance, saying the plan “gives advice” to federal regulators and it does not have “the force of rule or law.” A Brookfield spokesperson declined to comment on the shift, saying Maine had not notified the company of the plan’s withdrawal. But the process has damaged the state’s relationship with Brookfield.

Until last year, Mills had been trying to facilitate a deal between the company and a third party looking to buy its dams, but that never came to fruition. Mills defended the plan two weeks ago, saying the power giant had the resources to meet the state’s demands.

Environmental and fishery advocates said the removal of the dams would be the only way to restore the populations of the salmon and other sea-run species that must navigate the dams to spawn. They said fish passage efforts such as lifts can be difficult for fish to find and use and the gauntlet of dams on the Kennebec would exhaust them and make return difficult.

But two Republican state senators — Brad Farrin of Norridgewock and Scott Cyrway of Albion — accused the state of underplaying the effect of the change. Fairfield, for example, would lose $389,000 in annual property tax revenue if the Shawmut Dam was removed, and officials in Winslow worried about flooding along the riverbank after removal.

Farrin said he still believes the state is selling short the importance of the plan in federal rulemaking and he would have to see the state’s next proposal before determining if it was an improvement. But he was optimistic Thursday afternoon, saying the Mills administration had reached out to him to set up an appointment next week to discuss his concerns with the plan.

“I think there’s a compromise,” he said, referring to the desire to keep the dams and restore fish populations. “I think there’s a way to do both.”

Correction: The state developed the plan under a law that did not give it the requisite authority. An earlier version of this story incorrectly referenced that law. Sen. Scott Cyrway also lives in Albion. An earlier version incorrectly referenced his hometown.