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Locals Watch the Demolition of Winslow's 100-year-old Fort Halifax Dam.

July 23, 2008 - WINSLOW Closure came to the controversy surrounding Fort Halifax Dam on Thursday morning with a few blows from a hoe-ram.

The demolition machine, essentially an excavator with a hydraulic hammer, began to breach a portion of the 100-year-old hydroelectric facility about 10 a.m. as two dozen people watched from the Sebasticook River bridge.

Some bemoaned the dam's removal; others watched with delight as the water began to flow through the opening.

"I think it is a good thing," Waterville resident Mike Cleary said from the bridge. "I was there to see the Augusta dam go. I'm a big fly fisherman."

But less than 50 feet away from Cleary, Winslow resident Tom Davis held an opposite view.

"I think it is ridiculous," he said, "You have a perfectly functioning (hydroelectric) dam being taken out, but one mile away from here, they repaired one that was down and not producing any electricity."

That other dam is the Union Gas project on Messalonskee Stream, a hydroelectric facility that Synergics Inc. put back into operation last year after a $1.7 million investment.

FPL Energy made a different decision with Fort Halifax. The energy company decided seven years ago to surrender its license and remove the dam.

A battle between opponents and supporters of removing Fort Halifax ensued, a debate that delayed the breaching for more than five years and resulted in multiple legal challenges, as well as anger and frustration on both sides.

Rep. Kenneth Fletcher, R-Winslow, spearheaded the effort to preserve the dam.

Fletcher, whose home sits on the bank of what had been the reservoir formed by Fort Halifax Dam, founded the group Save Our Sebasticook with his wife, Mary Ellen, and served as the primary voice of opposition to the dam's removal.

He criticized the 1998 agreement that required fish passage past Fort Halifax through either a fish lift or dam removal as a private deal between state agencies and a group of fisheries and conservation groups known collectively as the Kennebec Coalition.

Members of the Kennebec Coalition argued they simply wanted timely and effective fish passage.

Once FPL Energy elected to pursue dam removal, the coalition viewed that as the best option, although Fletcher and his group maintained the coalition was determined to breach Fort Halifax from the start.

Essex Hydro Associates, a Boston-based company that operates a number of small hydro projects, including the Benton Falls Dam, sought to purchase Fort Halifax Dam and continue generating electricity at the facility.

FPL Energy was open to Essex Hydro's interest, but other parties to the 1998 agreement found fault with the hydro company's plan and rejected it.

Essex Hydro made a late-hour attempt to delay removal so it could pursue taking over the project.

But on Thursday, at about the same time the hoe-ram began to breach Fort Halifax, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected Essex Hydro's request.

For those assembled on the bridge, physical rather than regulatory action was the order of the day: The slow, methodical strikes of the hoe-ram said it all.

Nick Bennett, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, felt five years of frustration leave his body.

"I'm very relieved to see that we are going to see this river come back to life," he said. "It is going to restore five miles of habitat to sea-run fish. This will be especially good habitat for shad."

Bennett said the transformation into a free-flowing river also should attract aquatic insects that will in turn attract wildlife such as mink and otters.

Reggie Bizier of Vassalboro grew up on the banks of the Fort Halifax reservoir and spent much of his life hunting, fishing and canoeing "the pond."

His opposition, though, went beyond recreational issues.

"They are doing a foolish thing," he said of the breaching. "There is too much energy there that they are destroying."

Cleary, the Waterville fly fisherman, said the dam's removal benefits society as a whole.

"You've got to ultimately think what is best for the river and the environment," he said, "and fish passage is what's best for the river and the environment."

By COLIN HICKEY, Portland Press Herald, July 18, 2008


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