Dam Foes Win One for the Kipper

BAR HARBOR, MAINE--For the first time, the U. S. government has ordered the removal of a working hydropower dam in order to restore threatened fish populations. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) today gave the owners of the Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River 1 year to develop a plan for removing the dam. For 160 years, the dam has prevented sturgeon, salmon, and seven other species of migratory fish from reaching prime spawning grounds.

The decision is a landmark victory for environmentalists and a major reversal for the dam's owners, who had been seeking a new operating license since 1993. Last year, in a preliminary study, FERC had concluded the dam could stay if Edwards Manufacturing Co. of Augusta, Maine, added elevators to lift millions of spawning fish over the obstacle. But the agency changed its mind earlier this year after studies showed that adding elevators would cost $10 million--almost double the cost of removal--and would not help all fish. The agency also concluded that Maine's economy would not be harmed by the loss of the dam. It produces 3.5 megawatts of electricity, or less than 0.1% of the state's annual energy use.

The precedent-setting order "reflects a balanced view of environmental as well as social and economic considerations," says FERC chair James Hoecker, who noted that Maine and federal government officials had joined environmental groups in a decade-long campaign for removal. "What is so incredible about the announcement is that it came from an agency that has never said 'no' to a dam operator," says Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Since 1920, FERC has ordered the removal of just seven of the more than 1600 dams under its control--all for safety reasons after the owners had abandoned them.

Edwards Manufacturing officials have promised to fight FERC's decision in court, calling it unconstitutional and "the flawed result of a tainted process." The challenge would be a major test of the agency's authority and its power to require dam owners to pay the costs of removal.