In this Feb. 8, 2017, file photo, Sappi North America's Skowhegan mill is seen. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

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Sean Wallace is the managing director of Sappi North America’s Somerset Mill. Patrick Carleton is the president of USW Local 4-9 at the Sappi Somerset Mill. Mike Haws, president and CEO of Sappi North America, and Mike Schultz, vice president of manufacturing for Sappi North America, contributed to this column.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is about to issue an order that will put Sappi’s entire Somerset operations at risk.

Over the past several months, as part of Brookfield’s Shawmut Dam relicensing process, the DEP and the Maine Department of Marine Resources have made clear that they want the dam to be removed in order to maximize the ability of Atlantic salmon to pass the dam site.  According to these agencies, installation of fish passage facilities at the dams will not be sufficient for fish to pass upstream.

Last month, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission disagreed and issued a draft environmental assessment concluding that dam removal is not necessary, and that reasonable fish passage could be designed to provide adequate fish passage.  

Nonetheless, last week, the DEP ignored the concerns of Sappi and other stakeholders and issued a draft order proposing to deny water quality certification for the relicensing process on the basis that fish passage would only be 96 percent effective rather than 99 percent effective. If this order is issued in final form (the deadline for the final order is Aug. 27), decommissioning and removal of the Shawmut Dam are the most likely outcomes.  

Water is a critical resource in Somerset’s operations. Removing the dam will drop the river water level 15 to 20 feet, to a depth of four to six feet, rendering the mill’s water intake and wastewater discharge systems inoperable. Sappi does not believe that any technical option will work with a river level of only four to six feet.  

In short, the removal of the Shawmut Dam could shut the Somerset Mill. This would have potentially devastating economic effects on Sappi, its employees, and its suppliers, and thus a similarly devastating impact on the surrounding communities whose economies rely to a large extent on the Somerset Mill. The Sappi Somerset Mill directly employs roughly 735 people from many of the surrounding communities, contributing millions of dollars to the local economy.

Thus, the negative economic impacts of dam removal greatly outweigh any potential environmental or economic benefit that might be achieved by removal of the Shawmut Dam. The benefits being sought can be achieved through installation of fish passage facilities, without causing the economic harm that would be caused by dam removal.

We urge the Maine DEP to reconsider its position and issue water quality certification for the Shawmut Dam project. The agency may believe that, somehow, it can achieve dam removal and protect Sappi’s operations. We know better, and do not believe that our mill is worth that risk.