Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, covers his heart while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, Wednesday, March 10, 2021, at the Augusta Civic Center. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine’s two top legislative Democrats waded into the fight over a key dam on the Kennebec River on Wednesday by proposing a bill meant to block the administration of Gov. Janet Mills from enforcing strict fish-passage standards there.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, have proposed legislation that would establish “reasonable standards” for permitting and operation of dams in the state and would “clarify” the Legislature’s role in water quality rulemaking, according to a news release. No bill text was available.

It is aimed at the Department of Environmental Protection’s pending decision to deny a water-quality certification for the Shawmut Dam in Fairfield. The dam’s owner, Brookfield Renewables, withdrew its application this month after the state cited insufficient fish-passage standards and it plans to file a new one.

The top Democrats’ break with Mills comes after she faced heavy criticism from Republican lawmakers from the area — led by Sen. Brad Farrin of Norridgewock — after her administration expressed a desire to decommission the Fairfield dam and three others on the lower Kennebec to aid the endangered Atlantic salmon and other sea-run fish.

Maine dropped a plan in April targeting the removal of those dams after a lawsuit from Brookfield revealed that the state had no authority to pursue the plan under state law. But the water quality certification is critical to the Shawmut Dam getting federally relicensed. Sappi North America Inc., which owns a Skowhegan mill that relies on the dam, has said the denial could ultimately lead to dam removal and that would hamper the mill’s ability to operate.

The DEP denied the water quality certification because it said Brookfield’s fish passage upgrades, which would allow about 96 percent of salmon to pass through the dam going both ways, was insufficient to meet what the 99 percent threshold the state wants. But the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said the state’s standard was unnecessary and would only result in a minimal difference in the amount of fish able to pass through the dam.

Conservation groups have protested that initial decision, saying FERC needs to do a more thorough environmental assessment and that removal is the only way to help the endangered fish population. They have also questioned the idea that removing the dam will doom the mill, saying intake infrastructure could be rerouted.