Atlantic salmon swim in a pool of the Sandy River in western Maine in this 2019 photo. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Department of Marine Resources

Maine plans to deny a major dam owner a crucial certification using standards that it unsuccessfully tried to implement in a Kennebec River management plan in another twist in the fraught battle over the fate of four dams on the river.

The draft document from the Department of Environmental Protection cites an insufficient ability for the endangered Atlantic salmon and other sea-run fish to pass through Brookfield Renewable’s Shawmut Dam in Fairfield, which is currently in the relicensing process through a federal energy regulator. A denial will hurt Brookfield in its efforts to renew the dam’s federal license, setting a precedent for passage on the river and perhaps forcing removal.

The denial would rely on Department of Marine Resources comments stating that Maine’s salmon restoration goals can only be achieved if 99 percent of the fish are able to pass through the dam going both upstream and downstream. It is the same standard Maine tried to set earlier this year through an amendment of the Kennebec River’s management plan after attempts to shepherd a sale of that dam and three others on the river fell apart. That plan recommended decommissioning and removing the four dams to help the fish population recover.

But the state withdrew the plan after determining it had tried to amend the plan under the wrong law. Brookfield has now withdrawn its application and plans to submit another one within 60 days, further prolonging the licensing process.

It is the latest salvo in the fight over of dams in Maine, where Gov. Janet Mills is pitted against the company, local mills and communities that claim they are integral to their survival. Dams have long been a environmental flashpoint as opponents argue they exhaust, confuse and hurt fish, even with costly fish passage modifications.

The state found the dam’s impoundment met the state’s criteria to support aquatic life, but that the discharge waters did not meet state requirements to support native fish species in these waters. The law also requires the habitat of the fish be unimpaired, something Maine believes Brookfield will be unable to achieve despite the company’s assurances that planned fish passage upgrades will allow for 96 percent upstream passage and 97 percent downstream passage for Atlantic salmon. The law does not set an exact threshold for unimpaired migration.

The new application would give the state a year to reconsider its position, said David Madore, a spokesperson for the environmental protection department. He did not answer questions about how it would be able to hold Brookfield to the 99 percent threshold.

The denial could ultimately force the removal of the dam if the license is not renewed, said Jim Brooks, the environmental manager at the Sappi pulp and paper mill in Skowhegan, which relies on the river to be at a certain level to operate. He said workers are facing “a cloud of uncertainty” with the draft decision.

“We feel that 99 percent ensures the dam will be removed,” Brooks said. “No one can reach that.”

The decision was hammered by Sen. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, whose district includes Sappi. He accused the Democratic governor of seeking another way to decommission the dams and said it could force the mill’s closure.

“With Governor Mills determined to ensure the dam’s removal, it is time to take action to avoid the devastating economic loss to our region that lies ahead if she is successful,” Farrin wrote, referring to how the dam’s potential decommissioning could affect Sappi. “Otherwise, it will soon be time to consider how best to cope with this loss.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed information from Jim Brooks, the environmental manager at the Sappi pulp and paper mill in Skowhegan.