US likely to pull plug on Maine's Dickey dam

The stately St. John River, wide and flat as it flows among the spruce-covered hills of this northern Maine village, shows no signs of controversy.

But among the residents of this isolated logging area, who talk in the same breath of moose and megawatts, there is a sense of relief that, at least for the immediate future, the river will continue to flow.

For the massive Dickey Dam -- an Aswan Dam-sized hydroelectric facility that would have wiped out the town, flooded 86,000 acres, and backed up the last major free-flowing river in New England for 278 miles -- has effectively been killed.

Legislation submitted last spring by the Maine congressional delegation, which has finally united in opposing the 15-year-old, $13.2 million study by the Army Corps of Engineers of the Dickey-Lincoln Dams, will "deauthorize" the $900 million Dickey segment if, as expected, it is approved.

The result: The largest public-works project in New England's history may become the first major federl waterworks project to be deauthorized by Congress after receiving a solidly favorable report from the corps.

The final report by the corps, submitted at the end of August, recommended construction, saying the twin dams eventually would produce energy worth $138 million a year and would prevent more than $1 million in annual flood damage.

According to executive director Robert Gardiner of the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), however, a trend may be building against such vast, expensive, and always-controversial projects -- like the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway (already under construction in Alabama and Mississippi) and the Garrison Diversion Unit in North Dakota (still under study).

"The thinking that's behind the Dickey-Lincoln Dam deauthorization is occuring elsewhere in the nation," says Mr. Gardiner, whose group was formed in 1959 to fight the dams.

But Sen. George J. Mitchell (D) of Maine, a Dickey-Lincoln supporter who agreed to the deauthorization legislation, thinks the full project will someday be built.

"I continue to believe that the entire project merits support," he told electricity industry officials earlier this month, "and I believe it will in future receive the support it deserves."

Still under study, and favored by the NRCM, is the very much smaller Lincoln School Dam a few miles down river. The smaller dam would produce 202.6 million kilowatt-hours (kwh) annually (instead of the 1.45 billion kwh from Dickey), absorb less than 4,500 acres, and back up only 16.8 miles of river.

More important to local residents, however, is the use of the power. The Dickey generators would have provided "peaking" power for use several hours a day. Some 78 percent of its output would have gone out of state -- along a 365 -mile, 6,000-acre power transmission corridor.

The Lincoln School plan calls for all the power to be used locally. And in a state with a controversial nuclear power plant and with the highest dependence on imported oil of any in the union, this is an important selling point.

If it passes, the deauthorization legislation will end a battle that, one way or another, has been raging for nearly half a century. Residents have "lived under the shadow of the dam since 1922," says former Dickey schoolteacher Bob O'Leary, who led the fight against governmental developers and hydro-electric interests among the deeply divided St. John Valley population.

Maine guide Dave Lutes agrees. "I'm awfully glad they dropped the Dickey part of it," he says, sitting among books and outdoor gear in a cabin that would have been 280 feet underwater. "They wanted to package us into a housing development below the dam," he says.

Part of the problem with that relocation plan, says Mr. O'Leary, was an ethnic one. Dickey and nearby Allagash are Scotch-Irish enclaves, while the surrounding countryside is populated largely by French-Canadians. Under government regulations, he says, the area's 161 families could only have been relocated within 50 miles -- not far enough to get out of French-speaking territory.

Part of it, too, comes from a distruct of government interference within the fiercely independent local population. "Could you call this anything but a political football?" asks local contractor Clark McBreaity. Once a staunch supporter of the project, he gradually turned against it.

"Every time a candidate ran for office," says Mr. McBreaity in an accent blending a Scotch burr with a Maine drawl, "he run up and down New England whooping and hollering for Dickey-Lincoln Dam."

One of the project's stauchest supporters, in fact, was former Sen. Edmund M. Muskie. He saw the plan as a way to help meet the nation's energy needs and to bring employment to the state, and is credited with almost single-handedly keeping the plan alive for many years.

Arrayed against him, however, were as many as 60,000 conservationists from around the nation. Under the direction of the NRCM, they argued against what they saw as a "pork barrel" water project.

Their arguments ranged all the way from interests rates (the corps used the low figure of 8 percent in estimating the cost of the dams) to the furbish lousewort (a wild snap-dragon unique to the St. John Valley, once thought extinct but rediscovered during the project planning).

Also helping opponents: The possibility of buying massive amounts of power from the James Bay generators of Quebec Hydro, and a slight downturn in New England's electricity consumption in the past year.

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