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Sappi Surprise: Westbrook Mill Considers Removing Controversial Dam
03/07/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

A long-running fight over a hydroelectric dam in downtown Westbrook took an unexpected turn this week when the dam's owner announced that it's considering tearing down the structure. Sappi Fine Paper and the city of Westbrook have agreed to study recreational and economic development of the Saccarappa Falls stretch of the Presumpscot River. Susan Sharon has more.

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For nearly two decades, Sappi has resisted environmentalists' calls to remove the dam, which has blocked the passage of migrating fish for more than 150 years. But Donna Cassese, the managing director for the Westbrook mill, says that position has evolved as she has gotten to know city officials better. Cassese has been in her job for the past five years.

"As I've gotten a better understanding of what the city's plans are and how important it is to the economic vitality of the town, we stepped back and said: 'Are there ways we could meet everybody's needs here?'" she says.

The announcement caught even the Friends of the Prescumpscot River by surprise. They've been trying to restore native species of fish - such as Atlantic salmon, shad and alewives - to the river since their group was formed in 1992. They've pushed for stricter standards for the mill's discharge, fought against the relicensing of several dams and took one of their issues all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and won.

And while none of the dams was ever ordered removed, fish passage was required for native fish species. Construction of a concrete fishway is expected to be completed at the Saccarappa Falls in downtown Westbrook by 2015. Now, Sappi Fine Paper is suggesting that the dam might be torn down.

"My initial take is, is you know, thrilled. We think it'd be great," says Michael Shaughnessy, president of the group Friends of the Presumscot River. He says as long as the study doesn't result in more delays, dam removal would be good for the river, for the revitalization of Westbrook and even for surrounding towns. The dam itself produces only a small amount of power.

"A lot of these little hydro dams don't have, in our minds, a lot of justification, relative to what impacts they have on the river," Shaughnessy says.

In a joint announcement, Sappi and the city of Westbrook say they will focus on ensuring timely and effective fish passage at the falls, and work with local and state agencies, as well as environmental groups, to implement solutions. Westbrook Assistant City Administrator Bill Baker says he's optimistic it can all work out, despite some wariness among stakeholders.

"I understand why there's skepticism on all sides, but I think our job on behalf of the taxpayers of the city of Westbrook, and on behalf of the environment, is to be positive advocates for the best possible course," Baker says, "and we think the best possible course is dam removal and restoration of habitat there."

With Sappi's support, the city of Westbrook has filed a grant application with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to explore the potential effects of dam removal and successful fish passage at the site. Sappi is also exporing the donation of some land along the Presumpscot River to the city of Westbrook.


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