Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, is sworn into his leadership post by Justice Andrew Mead of the state's high court at the Augusta Civic Center on Dec 2, 2020. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — A top legislative Democrat hit the administration of Gov. Janet Mills for “behind-the-scenes games” on Kennebec River dams on Monday, lining up with paper and labor interests against environmentalists who want the dams removed.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, unveiled a bill to require any river management plan to consider existing hydropowers uses and make those plans subject to legislative approval as a way to protect jobs at Sappi North America’s Somerset Mill, which employs 700 people in Fairfield and relies on water levels at nearby the Shawmut Dam.

That dam has been at the center of a long fight between its owner and environmentalists who want it and other dams removed to allow the endangered Atlantic salmon easier access to spawning grounds. The state has sided against the dam owner issuing plans to deny a key permit in August. Brookfield withdrew their request, restarting a long process.

It created an uproar in the Skowhegan area. Days after that decision, Mills edged off her administration’s past stance that the dams may have to be removed. But it led top legislative Democrats to side with the mill and its union workers over Mills and environmentalists. The bill from Jackson, a top labor Democrat, was promised as a remedy to the situation.

At a Monday public hearing on the measure, a state official said changing how Maine regulates dams could have long-reaching consequences, as dam’s federal licenses can last for 50 years. The state is saying the bill may clash with federal environmental laws.

“Putting aside the particulars of the bill and questions about whether this type of delegation is legal, under any scenario, giving up the State’s ability to evaluate the impact of a dam on Maine waters – an impact that may last for up to a half century – is bad policy,” said Nicholas Livesay, the director of the Bureau of Land Resources.

The department’s concerns lay with how it would interact with the Clean Water Act, which requires states to develop water quality standards. The federal law gives states the ability to set their water quality standards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would have to approve the statutory changes Jackson’s bill would make. Livesay was unsure the Clean Water Act would allow the agency to do so. He also said the bill might violate the Maine Constitution’s limits on legislative authority.

But Jackson argued the bill was crucial to providing stability to the businesses that rely on dams. While he believed the only way to fully restore the Atlantic salmon to the river is likely to remove the dams, he also said the Legislature needs to balance that interest with the economy. The back-and-forth around the Shawmut dam undercuts that, he said.

“But I still think it’s important that people know that their jobs are as secure as possible and we don’t play these behind-the-scenes games with their lives,” he said.