For the first time in its history, the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has ordered the removal of a dam that is due for relicensing. FERC voted 2-1 not to re-issue an operating licence for a hydro dam in the state of Maine in the US and to order the removal of the structure across one of Maine’s prime fishing rivers.

FERC gave the dam’s owners, Edwards Manufacturing, a year to file a plan to dismantle the dam. Environmentalists and sport-fishing groups, that have been pushing for the dam’s removal for a decade, hailed FERC’s decision but the owner said he would appeal. Edwards Manufacturing had applied for relicensing, as well as permission to boost the dam’s power generating capacity to 4.5MW.

The Edwards dam generates 3.5MW and provides power to the Central Maine Power Co., a local utility, under a 15-year agreement which generates between US$2-4M a year in revenue. The City of Augusta, the capital city of Maine, is a co-licensee with Edwards and shares in the revenue.

The Kennebec coalition, an environmental group, which considers the dam a threat to native fish, says the dam blocks 16 miles of unique river and its removal is the only way to extend the tidal estuary; encouraging upstream spawning for ten native fish species, including Atlantic salmon and American shad.

Other dam opponents, who include the state’s Governor Angus S. King Jr., claim millions of dollars worth of recreational opportunities can be created if the structure is removed.

According to Mark Isaacson, Vice President of Edwards Manufacturing, the environmental community is looking for a cause and they’re only interested in establishing the precedent of involuntary dam removal. Edwards Manufac-turing has offered to install a new US$2M fish lift, but it is claimed that environmental groups have insisted on state-of-the-art multiple fish lifts that could cost up to US$12M. Isaacson argues that this would be prohibitively expensive and unjustified biologically.

Edwards Dam is one of about 2000 non-federal dams in the US that generate electricity and fall under FERC’s purview. Ten other dams above the Edwards, without fish passage provisions, are also seeking relicensing. FERC has rarely ordered the closure of dams, and has previously done so only for safety reasons.

If a licence is not renewed, the project must be decommissioned. The cost of shutting down the Edwards Dam is estimated to be in the region of US$2.4-6.4M.

In 1986, Congress passed legislation requiring FERC – through its hydropower licensing activities – to balance power generation and environmental protection. In cases prior to this one, FERC had addressed environmental concerns by adding conditions to the licence, such as requiring fish passage systems as part of a licensing.

This is the first time FERC has determined that continued operation of a dam will cause unacceptable environmental damage which can not be adequately addressed through any action short of dam removal.