Northern Sky News Circa 2004- 2006
For a number of years this was the website for the Northern Sky News out of Belfast Maine.
Content is from the site's 2004 archived pages providing just a glimpse of what this site offered its readership.
Northern Sky News
Environmental News of
94 Union St.
Belfast, ME 04915
About Northern Sky News
New England and the Canadian Maritimes include a wild mix of stunning beauty and outrageous devastation. Against all odds, the region has retained an incredible array of wildlands and wildlife. There's plenty here to be passionate about, and Northern Sky News is a paper for people who are passionate about these lands and waters. Northern Sky News is a monthly tabloid focusing on the environment of the northern Appalachian watersheds and adjacent coastal waters, from the Connecticut to the Gaspé Peninsula. Think of it as the Gulf of Maine watershed, with a bit of a buffer to the west, north and east.
Eels Killed at Maine Dam
Endangered Species Petition Filed
By Murray Carpenter
Doug Watts got mad when he discovered hundreds of eels—some five feet long and decades old—killed by the turbines of a dam on Maine’s Sebasticook River in mid-October. He alerted federal and state agencies, but both chose not to take any action against the dam operator. For another month, the dam kept cranking out electricity, and killing eels as they migrated seaward to spawn. For Watts, a longtime fish advocate from Augusta, it may have been the last straw.
In November, Watts and his brother Timothy Watts of Middleborough, Massachusetts, petitioned federal agencies to list American eels as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. It’s hard to imagine an endangered species listing that would encompass a more populous and developed swath of America. Virtually every stream and river from Florida to the St. Lawrence River has, or once had, an eel population. The fish have long had culinary and commercial value in New England—Native Americans used weirs to harvest eels throughout the region thousands of years ago.
Watts, President of Friends of the Kennebec Salmon, has been working to protect the fish of the Kennebec River watershed for years. And he is no stranger to the Endangered Species Act. In 1999 he signed on to a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s decision not to list Maine’s Atlantic salmon as endangered; the feds opted to list the fish later that year. And the Watts brothers will have some reputable allies on this campaign. The American Fisheries Society and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission have expressed concern over the eels’ falling numbers.
The Benton Falls eel kill is notable for two reasons. It is representative of the problems that eels face throughout their range. And it was avoidable.
BACK IN AUGUST, Watts wrote a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), requesting that the turbines at the Benton Falls dam be shut down at night to allow safe passage for the eels. Watts cited a 2001 Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) study that showed fifty percent of the eels passing the dam are killed by the turbines. “Severe eels kills like those documented by Maine DMR in 2001 have undoubtedly occurred every fall at the Benton Falls Project since it went on-line in 1988,” Watts wrote. “Severe eel kills will undoubtedly occur at the Benton Falls Project this fall and every fall thereafter.”
In response, the dam owner, Arcadia Energy of Atlanta, Georgia, called the DMR evidence of a fish kill, “inconclusive and inadequate.” It declined to voluntarily shut down the turbines at night.
In addition to stopping the turbines, there are other ways to keep eels safe. Several years ago, Watts raised a ruckus over eel kills at the American Tissue Dam on Cobbossecontee Stream, another Kennebec River tributary, and he has been instrumental in pushing for safe eel passage at that dam. A perforated gate over the intake to the turbines now keeps migrating eels from getting chopped. The solution was cheap, it did not effect power generation and, says Watts, it works.
So he was dismayed that federal and state regulators took no action to protect the eels at Benton Falls Dam. And when he visited the site on October 14 he wasn’t surprised to find many large dead eels below the dam. Four bald eagles were eating the dead eels, and there were dead juvenile alewives in the area, too.
Watts took two large, beheaded eels to the Augusta offices of Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). He had reason to hope the state would intervene. In 1999, Watts’ discovery of many turbine-killed alewives below this same dam led the state to fine the dam owner.
The next day, October 15, Watts returned to the dam site with Nathan Gray, a biologist with Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “Using chest waders we inspected the tailrace outfall and found there were at least a few hundred eels killed over the past few weeks,” Gray wrote in his inspection report. “Nearly all sections of the tailrace that were wadeable contained the remains of adult eels that appeared to have been killed by turbine blade strike.”
On both site visits, Watts mentioned the fish kills to the dam operator: “I talked to the dam operator, I showed him the eels, I said ‘You guys are chopping up eels.’” The operator denied the eels were being killed by the dam.
Watts doesn’t try to hide his anger and disgust over the eel kill. “This is not pretty. It’s gory. It’s like taking a tour of the slaughterhouse,” says Watts. Noting that one of the large eels he found dead had its gills pushed up out of its mouth, he says, “It’s like someone punching you so hard in the chest that you’re spitting up your lungs.”
ON OCTOBER 16, Watts again wrote FERC, asking them to stop the turbines at night. “Because of the complete failure of the Licensee and the Commission to do anything to stop this carnage, it happened, it continues, and the bottom of the Sebasticook River is now carpeted with the decapitated and mangled bodies of hundreds of 20-50 year old female American eels killed by the turbines of the Benton Falls dam for the crime of trying to swim to the Sargasso Sea to give birth to their children.”
The eel kill prompted an October 18 meeting with representatives of Maine’s DEP, DMR and Office of the Attorney General. They determined that the dam was not violating any laws, and decided to ask the dam owner to voluntarily turn off the turbines at night, to allow the eels safe passage.
Watts was puzzled by the lack of state response. “We found over 200 large eels, dead, and the state just said there’s nothing we can do,” says Watts. Comparing it to the state’s earlier enforcement action at the dam, Watts says, “It’s confusing that here we are, same dam, five years later, and they say there’s nothing we can do.”
Dana Murch, who oversees dams for DEP, counters that it’s not that easy. First of all, the Benton Falls dam is in a regulatory morass. It has a FERC license, which, in many cases, precludes state authority; and it is governed by an agreement with the Kennebec Hydro Developers Group (KHDG), which the state is a partner to. The KHDG agreement calls for DMR to do a three-year study of eel passage at dams in the Kennebec watershed, but the studies are not yet complete, says Murch.
The bottom line, says Murch, “There’s nothing that requires that the dam owner provide downstream passage.” And the state was unwilling to ask the dam owner to forego revenue by locking up the turbines through the night hours for the two months of the eels’ migration. The state did request a voluntary shutdown, which the dam owner did for two weekend nights after Watts encountered the dead eels.
Another problem, says Murch, is the murky science of eel passage: “To be blunt, there is no state of the art here.” As the state agencies are getting more serious about the question of eel passage, says Murch, “We may end up doing some experimentation at a bunch of different places.”
THE EEL KILL at Benton Falls is not an isolated incident. Gail Wipplehauser, a DMR biologist who’s been studying eels for 25 years, says, “I think the same thing is probably happening at every hydro facility on the East Coast that has a run of eels.”
Wipplehauser says that until recently eel passage simply wasn’t a priority when dams were licensed. The Medway Dam, on the Penobscot River, was the first one in the state to have upstream and downstream eel passage incorporated into its FERC license.
Wipplehauser says there are other problems besides turbine mortality. A pot fishery for eels in the Mid-Atlantic states harvests a “huge” number of eels. Long-lived, fatty, and dwelling among sediments in slow-moving streams, eels are well-suited to soak up toxics, and this might affect their survival and reproduction. The elver fishery—for the tiny eels ascending Maine rivers in the spring months—reached gold-rush proportions in the late 1990s, when the baby eels fetched up to $300 a pound for export to Asia. But the fishery has been scaled back dramatically.
Wipplehauser has been monitoring juvenile eels numbers at a couple of sites on the Maine coast. While she does not have enough years of data to draw a strong conclusion, she does say, “It looks to me as though the trend is down.” Low recruitment combined with a long lifespan—the average Maine eel is 16 years old when it makes its spawning journey—means that problems showing up in elvers now won’t be reflected in a loss of spawning biomass for 16 years or so.
Most troubling of all, is the dramatic decline in the formerly enormous eel population in the St. Lawrence River/Lake Ontario system, where virtually no juvenile eels have been showing up in recent years. Because of eels’ unique life cycle, the decline is especially significant.
The entire American eel population spawns in the Sargasso Sea, south of Bermuda. The larvae drift up the coast and immature eels ascend rivers all along the Atlantic coast. The males tend to stay at the upper reaches of the estuaries, while the females head far upriver, and grow to a larger size. After as much as 30 years the eels leave in the autumn months and swim thousands of miles back to the Sargasso Sea, where they will spawn in January, then die. Eels are the only fish in North America to have this “catadromous” life cycle, the opposite of anadromous fish such as salmon or shad that return to freshwater to spawn.
Eels are a randomly mating or “panmictic” population, so a decline in the St. Lawrence eel population, formerly a large percentage of the entire American eel population, likely anticipates a significant decline throughout the eels’ range. Combine the known mortality with the warning signs now blinking red, and the future of American eels looks uncertain, if not downright precarious.
On November 12, the Watts brothers filed the endangered species petition with the federal agencies. If the Watts’ action seems extreme, consider this statement, in a March news release from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission: “The Commission also recommended that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) consider American eel in the Lake Ontario/St. Lawrence River/Lake Champlain/Richelieu River system as a candidate for listing as a Distinct Population Segment under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The board also recommended that the USFWS and the NMFS consider designating the entire coastwide stock as a candidate for listing under the ESA.”
In the Watts’ petition, the brothers note eel kills and problems with eel passage from the Susquehanna River and the Connecticut River, to the Weweantic River (tributary to Buzzards Bay) and the Eel Weir Dam, at the outlet of Maine’s Sebago Lake. The latter is one of many dams where it’s been reported that out-migrating eels have clogged the turbines.
EVENTUALLY, with the eel migration season nearly over, the state did get more serious about the problem. On November 10, DEP Commissioner Dawn Gallagher wrote to Arcadia to express concern about the eel kill. “It is the Department’s expectation that Arcadia Companies will ensure there is substantially improved performance at the Benton Falls Hydroelectric Project from now on to minimize eel mortality,” wrote Gallagher. “Additional eel mortality may be grounds for enforcement action by the state.”
It’s hard to say what’s more notable, that this fish kill continued for over a month after Watts raised a stink about it, or that the same thing has probably been going on for years, coastwide. Eels have long suffered from a lack of constituency. They are slippery, they are slimy, they have nasty teeth, they steal bait, they travel at night. “If these were salmon, if these were trout, obviously, I think you’d see a different response,” says Watts.
A different response may be coming soon, if not from the state agencies who say the eel problem is now on their radar screen, then from the federal government by way of an endangered species listing.
Stumping on Wetlands
President Bush, on an Earth Day visit to southern Maine,
praised volunteers and placed the responsibility for environmental
action on citizens. “Good conservation and good stewardship
will happen when people say ‘I’m not going to rely on
government to be the solution to the problem,’” said Bush.
President Bush’s Earth Day Address: A View from the Back Row
Analysis by Murray Carpenter
WELLS, Maine—It was an altogether strange scene in the songbird-rich fields next to thickets above the Little River estuary. Snipers in SWAT attire with monstrous binoculars scanned the fields, not searching the brush for birds, but rather keeping the brush clear for Bush. An enormous Coast Guard helicopter came crabbing sideways, low above the marsh, doing a security sweep.
President Bush was due to arrive soon to deliver his Earth Day address.
Three hundred or so ardent Bush supporters, an invite-only crowd, filled up benches freshly cobbled together out of dimensional lumber. Men wore golf-club hats and blazers, some women lurched over the lumpy meadow in heels. Young women wore “Luvya Dubya” buttons, and one elderly gent wore a ball cap simply embroidered “Nixon” (strangely, it looked new). Plainclothes Secret Service agents with ear sets, dark shades and expressionless faces were everywhere.
Before long, the president’s mother Barbara Bush walked over and worked the crowd, which rose to its feet and applauded loudly. The PA system cranked out the presidential-mix CD, featuring Stars and Stripes Forever and other crisp patriotic tunes. One of the local TV newsmen pointed out Karl Rove, the president’s chief political strategist. Rove was dressed in a green wool, I’m-visiting-a-wildlife-refuge-in-Maine jacket, gripping and grinning, standing for photo-opps with donors.
Then President Bush himself arrived in a caravan of black Chevy Suburbans. After a brief tour of the estuary, he strode up onto the platform. “Before I go on too long about Mother Earth, I want to recognize my mother on earth,” said Bush. But he promptly stumbled with his next ad-lib about mom, flattering her with this: “Thanks for coming, mom. I hope you’re up the road making my bed.”
Aside from that, he was pretty smooth. He only once called Laudholm Farm, the National Estuarine Research Reserve that hosted the event, “Landholm Farm.” And, in what was supposed to be a “some of my best friends and neighbors are environmentalists” comment, he referred to a Kennebunkport acquaintance who is the president of the local land trust as Ray Bradbury; his name is Tom Bradbury.
Minor stumbles aside, Bush appeared personable and, dare I say it, likable. When he talked about how “old Number 41 and I” liked to catch striped bass off the beach here, it sounded genuine and sincere. Really.
• • •
Congenial personality aside, President Bush is uniformly recognized as the worst environmental president in decades, bar none. So this comment sounded far less sincere: “My administration has put into place some of the most important anti-pollution policies in a decade.” (Note that he was careful not to step on his dad’s toes—a decade ago it was Clinton in the White House.) That’s a pretty big reach.
It’s not just radical left-wingers who are criticizing the administration’s environmental record these days. Just the day before Bush showed up in Wells, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell addressed the annual Maine Water Conference in Augusta. Mitchell not only tipped his hat to his own predecessor—the late Senator Edmund Muskie, the father of the Clean Water and Clean Air acts—he also said how important George Bush’s support was to the Clean Air Act. He was not referring to the current president, but rather his father, “old 41.” Mitchell said the elder Bush’s support was crucial to the passage of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990.
“It makes the current president’s lack of support for the Clean Air Act ironic and tragic,” said Mitchell. Commenting on the current state of federal regulatory enforcement, he said, “It’s a sad day when EPA must be forced by the courts to do what it’s supposed to do.”
Mitchell was not the only one criticizing President Bush’s environmental track record. En route to Laudholm Farm, the Bush motorcade had to drive past a group of protesters out on Route 1 that equaled the crowd invited to hear President Bush speak. It’s unclear how much of the protest Bush was able to see—the SUVs sped by quickly.
Meanwhile, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry was in Houston on Earth Day, taking a swing at Bush’s environmental record before a crowd of thousands.
• • •
So the Bush administration rolled out this carefully choreographed Earth Day event. It was not quite a flight-suit-on-aircraft-carrier deal, but well-done nonetheless, with great attention to detail. Consider, for example, the new platform erected for the president to speak from. The rails were all clear, west-coast cedar. The production crew had been advised not to have anything unnatural in the setup, no man-made materials. Flood lights gave the President’s face a natural, sunny glow, even as clouds obscured the sun.
Bush wasn’t defending his environmental record in Maine, he was going on the offensive. His talked focussed on a new wetlands initiative. He claimed to be moving beyond the no-net-loss policy, to an effort to protect three million acres of wetlands over the next five years. The outline was vague: one million acres would be improved, one million acres protected and, most significantly, one million acres created or restored.
Wetlands seem a good choice for Bush to campaign on. Put another way, wetlands are one aspect of federal environmental regulation that the Bush administration has not been able to relax, though not for lack of trying. An earlier administration effort would have stripped the protection from millions of acres of small, “isolated” wetlands. The proposal was quietly withdrawn in December after EPA received over 100,000 comments, mostly negative.
So it’s a big shift, if not a flip-flop, to move from stripping federal protection for millions of acres of wetlands to protecting three million acres of wetlands.
Politically, too, wetlands are a good bet. Wetlands have a strong appeal to the middle-of-the-road conservationists who may have supported Bush in the last election, but are wavering this time in the face of the administration’s evisceration of every other aspect of environmental regulation. And wetlands are something those of us who like to fish or hunt can really get excited about. Wetlands are not abstract like biodiversity, nor are they evanescent like air quality. Wetlands are boots-on-the-ground conservation. Something you can point to and say, “There it is, saved, I did that.”
Further, wetlands fit well in the context of the President’s family, or dynasty. In addition to his experiences fishing with his father for striped bass feeding among the baitfish washed out of the very wetland behind him, there’s his brother Jeb to factor in. Florida Governor Jeb Bush is overseeing the largest federal wetlands restoration project in the country, in the Everglades. Indeed, President Bush’s second leg of the wetlands tour took him to to the Everglades with Jeb the next day.
The family context is bigger yet. In both Maine and Florida, Bush pointed out that his father had signed the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. Not only is Bush a conservationist, the message appears to be, but he comes from a family of conservationists and sportsmen.
Conveniently, the wetlands issue is something President Bush can’t be expected to deliver on before the election. From now until November, it’s just good intentions. Even his critics understand that you can’t plan and permit a massive wetlands restoration project between now and the election. What he can do is repeat his intention to restore wetlands.
In broadest terms, there are just a few strategies to ensure federal protection of wetlands: more stringent regulation coupled with aggressive enforcement; outright federal acquisition for conservation; and the acquisition of conservation easements on private lands. The record suggests that Bush will not be working on the first two fronts; increased regulations and new federal lands are not the hallmarks of his term.
So expect most wetlands action to be in the third category—the restoration, at taxpayer expense, of previously trashed, privately owned wetlands. The wetlands restoration projects will likely be on large parcels of land, otherwise it would take forever to restore a million acres. This is the last shrewd aspect of the wetlands project: it will allow President Bush to continue the trend of funneling public money into the accounts of the country’s wealthiest citizens and corporations, including those with large parcels of agricultural land. In one of the few specifics from the President’s address, he mentioned his 2005 budget request, now before Congress, which includes $349 million for the Wetlands Reserve Program and North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants.
• • •
Toward the end of Bush’s talk, he finally nailed the substance of his environmental policy with this comment: “Good conservation and good stewardship will happen when people say ‘I’m not going to rely on government to be the solution to the problem.’” In other words: Don’t whine about the environment and expect the government’s help, do something about it. Again, the choice of setting was no coincidence. Laudholm Farm was initially protected through local, private conservation efforts; it’s now run cooperatively with the federal government.
Bush stayed around for a long while after his talk, pressing the flesh and signing autographs. Then he hopped back into the bulletproof SUV and his motorcade sped away in a blast of sirens, again passing the hundreds of protesters out on Route 1. The music stopped, the national press corps hustled away. Folks compared signatures. “I got Karl Rove,” one kid said, “and George Bush.”
The floodlights were flipped off, and the patriotic tunes silenced. You could again hear the ambient sounds of field and marsh. A kingfisher flew over, calling raucously. And off in a distant vernal pool, a small “isolated” wetland, a single peeper peeped in the midday sun.
Before long, the sounds of nature were again drowned out by the drone of a large plane—apparently carrying the president—flying low overhead, buzzing the refuge, taking a turn north toward the Bush estate at Kennebunkport, then finally heading back south, toward D.C. The next day Bush was touring Florida wetlands with his brother—and collecting over four million dollars at fundraisers—as he continued campaigning for the votes of Americans, conservationists included.
IP and a River
A good politician can get away with it, not answering a direct question. He will dance around the issue so deftly that it may be hours, even days before you realize that the question was skirted. Not Maine Governor John Baldacci.
At the Maine Water Conference last month, he talked in broad terms about the importance of clean rivers to Maine. But when a woman asked why he’d supported a bill relaxing clean water standards for a stretch of the Androscoggin River receiving effluent from an International Paper (IP) mill, he didn’t simply dance around it, he leapt around it, stumbled and fell. All 350 people in the room were left wondering what he’d said.
You can’t blame him for wanting to avoid the question, only for doing it artlessly. The truth is that in Maine, even as the paper industry employs fewer, it remains a disproportionately influential industry. In this case it benefitted from having an employee, Representative Thomas Saviello (D-Wilton), carry water for it.
While discussing the river bill, IP said it really couldn’t afford to clean up the river, and said jobs were hanging in the balance. A few weeks after the bill passed, IP announced its profits for the first quarter of 2004: $73 million.
Where’s the Fire?
Wind power can and will to be an important part of this region’s future energy mix. But solid environmental assessments need to be done before permitting. Some wind developers are doing just this, spending years gathering environmental data at great expense. Others are trying to crank them out quick and dirty.
Just because a wind project is churning out green energy, it shouldn’t get away with a hasty environmental review any more than a hydro dam should be approved based on a visit or two to the river and a literature survey. There should be no “green exemption” to the permitting process.
The worst thing that could happen to the region’s wind industry would be to have a hastily sited project cause environmental damage, making future wind farms that much harder to permit.
By the Way...
Vermont Yankee, the nuclear power plant currently down for refueling, last month revealed that it can’t account for a couple of small, but seriously radioactive, pieces of spent fuel rods. Another little problem also cropped up last month—a small crack was discovered in its steam drying unit.
The timing isn’t particularly good for Entergy, Vermont Yankee’s new owner, which is now trying to convince federal regulators to permit it to increase power production. But then, we suppose, there’s never a great time to lose radioactive fuel rods.