Venturing: That dam on the West Branch

Posted Wednesday, November 30, 2011 in Opinion

Venturing: That dam on the West Branch

Big A dam site, courtesy Natural Resources Council of Maine

by David D. Platt

A friend mentioned awhile back that the 25th anniversary of the Big A Dam controversy is coming up. Now there’s a little fact that marks time – if you’ve been in Maine, particularly northern Maine, for a certain number of years you’ll remember what Big A was all about; if you’re new in Maine (by which I mean you’ve been around here for only a few years) you won’t have the faintest idea.

Big A was a big deal in its day. It was to be the 17th dam built on the east and west branches of the Penobscot River; it was to be part of what was at the time the world’s largest private hydroelectric system, owned and operated by Great Northern Paper Co. Like other dams in that system built over the years since 1900, Big A was intended to provide lots of electricity to the mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket, the surplus to be sold to Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. The site – Big Ambejackmockamus Falls on the West Branch – was (and probably still is) the finest undeveloped hydro site in the state. It had it all: good road access, lots of water, sufficient vertical drop, upstream storage, proximity to the existing system. From Great Northern’s point of view at least, the decision to build a new dam there was a no-brainer.

But as we now know, the world had changed. The environmental movement had transformed Mainers’ attitudes toward the North Woods and development there. Logs were no longer being driven down rivers like the Penobscot. New logging roads had opened up the woods to a generation of recreation-seeking travelers. Whitewater rafting had become a big business. Energy conservation had become a national discussion. Groups like Maine Audubon, the Conservation Law Foundation and the Natural Resources Council of Maine were determined to stop big hydro projects, and cash from their members and whitewater rafting companies made stopping the projects far more likely than would have been possible a few years earlier.

The Bangor Daily News, where I worked at the time, liked the project, presumably because its owners were (a) newsprint customers of Great Northern; and (b) because they agreed with the company that the dam would protect 1,689 jobs at the mills. I liked the project too, because it allowed me to spend six months, off and on, covering what became a fascinating discussion about energy, engineering, corporate power, the rising influence of non-corporate interests, the need to protect the environment, and the changing nature of the paper industry and the economy in Maine. Covering Big A meant I got to go rafting down the Penobscot, tour Great Northern’s mills and get to know a fascinating cast of characters, from Dan Boxer, Great Northern’s principal attorney on the case, to Amory Lovins, the energy-conservation guru. In between was an assortment of fascinating fishermen, rafters, paperworkers, company executives, environmentalists, journalists, politicians and state regulators. All of us – there must have been three dozen regular members of our group – traveled the state, taking part in hearings before the Land Use Regulation Commission, the Board of Environmental Protection and the Maine Legislature.

The whole business took more than a year and extended beyond my tenure at the Bango newspaper. In the end the company got its permit from LURC but stumbled along the way to its water-quality certification. The Legislature got into the fight at one point, and finally the company, faced with the prospect of lawsuits, rising costs, unwelcome publicity and likely some unhappy stockholders, gave up. Eventually it sold the hydro system to Canadian interests. The mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket have functioned off and on since; most recently one of them re-opened after a long shutdown. Papermaking in that part of the world is a shadow of its former self; a great deal of former paper-company land has changed hands; these days the towns seem to be devoting most of their energies to fighting off a proposed national park.

What killed Big A? I think the real culprit was energy: the too-cheap-to-meter kind that Great Northern had in abundance from its huge “free” hydro system. Never in the company’s history, as Amory Lovins was able to point out so effectively during the hearings, had there been any incentive to conserve a kilowatt. Motors at the mills had been in place since the early 1900s; heat and steam were simply escaping into the air. Other paper companies had forged ahead on co-generation and innovative systems to maximize their efficiency; Great Northern hadn’t. In the end, Big A collapsed under its own weight. It was a project whose time had come – and then gone.

But as a teaching moment in my own life, you couldn’t beat it.

David D. Platt covered Big A for the Bangor Daily News and then edited the old Maine Times.

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