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162-Year-Old Dam Being Removed

July 1, 1999

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) _ Heavy equipment began removing a 162-year-old dam today, unleashing first a trickle, then a torrent of water on a portion of the Kennebec River that hasn’t flowed freely since the 1830s.

Several thousand people including Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt gathered to watch the breaching of the Edwards Dam, hailed by environmentalists as the first dam demolition in the United States done against the owners’ wishes.

Gov. Angus King signaled the start of the process by ringing a bell from the west bank of the river. Then more bells rang from a church steeple.

A big backhoe ripped into a temporary cofferdam, which washed away within seconds, allowing first a trickle and then a rush of water to flow through a 60-foot gap that had already been cut in the 917-foot-wide dam.

Dams have fallen in other states, including North Carolina, California and Oregon. But the Edwards Dam, which produced a small amount of electricity, is the first forcibly removed under a policy that weighs power needs against environmental protection.

The dam is to be dismantled by Thanksgiving.

``With the removal of the Edwards Dam, the Kennebec River has been given a new lease on life,″ said Steve Brooke, coordinator of a coalition of conservation and fishing groups that pushed for the dam’s removal.

The process leading to the breach has been watched closely by dam opponents in the West, where entire salmon runs are extinct and others from California to Washington state are in danger.

Babbitt has encouraged the opponents by saying the nation’s 75,000 dams should not be seen as immovable monoliths like the pyramids of Egypt.

The dam, about 40 miles from the ocean, has blocked Atlantic salmon, endangered shortnose sturgeon and other sea-run fish for 162 years.

Conservationists have labored for years to restore a river that was so polluted and choked by industrial wastes that the Capitol windows had to be closed in the summer several decades ago to keep out the stench.

The dam rose amid some local opposition in 1837 along a river that had been known for its thriving fishery. It supplied mechanical power to sawmills and a riverside cotton mill, and later was fitted to generate hydroelectric power.

Opponents of the dam argued it generated only 3.5 megawatts, or one-tenth of 1 percent of the state’s power _ an amount, they said, which could be offset if 75,000 light bulbs were replaced with more energy-efficient types.

The dam’s owner, Edwards Manufacturing Co., proposed upgrading the output to 11 megawatts. But the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission denied the company’s application in 1997 and ordered the dam demolished, reasoning that the environmental damage greatly outweighed its benefits.

The order was the first time the government required the removal of a dam whose license holder wanted to continue operations. Congress had passed a law in 1986 requiring FERC to balance power generation and environmental protection when it licenses hydroelectric dams.

FERC’s predecessor, the Federal Power Commission, had authorized the removal of several dams since the 1920s. But those license holders wanted to abandon the projects anyway.

The breaching is expected to lower the Kennebec above the dam by about 8 feet within a day, allowing workers to begin the task of dismantling the structure.

Before the job is done in November, the old cribwork-and-stone dam will have been picked to pieces and carted off in about 7,000 truckloads, said Bruce Skilling, supervisor in charge of the project.

Officials for the state, which took over possession of the dam, see a resurgence of recreational fishing and boating as the river returns to its early-1800s state.

Margaret Bowman of American Rivers, part of the Kennebec Coalition, called Edwards the largest dam east of the Mississippi to be removed.

But not all environmentalists are cheering.

Jonathan Carter of the Forest Ecology Network said the financing plan for the removal compromises the overall environmental benefit.

Private companies who raised more than $7 million to pay for demolition received the right to fill in wetlands downstream and delay construction of fish ladders on several dams upstream, he said.

``Environmental gains minus environmental gains equals zero environmental gains,″ Carter said.

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