Positive environmental impacts expected from Milltown Dam removal

Written by Kim Reeder on July 9, 2019

Postcard image of the cotton mill (now the NB Power Milltown generating station) circa 1920 from the collection of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick. Copyright expired.

On June 27 NB Power announced it is seeking approval to remove the Milltown Generating Station on the Skutik [St. Croix] river near St. Stephen. Milltown is the oldest operating hydroelectric generating station in Canada. In operation since the early 1880s, the station has reached the end of its life. NB Power had considered extending Milltown’s life as well as improving the fish passage but determined the cost outweighs the potential benefits.

In their media release, NB power clarified that because Milltown generates less than one percent of its hydro power, the station’s removal will have no major impact on the power grid. The employment impact will also be minimal: one of the station’s three employees will be retiring while two others have agreed to move to other parts of the company. However the potential environmental affect is major: decommissioning the Milltown station will include removing the dam, allowing Salmon Falls and about 16 kilometers of the St. Croix River to be restored.

The region’s residents who monitor the condition of the St. Croix are optimistic about this news. The river health has been in decline since the first dam was built on its lower regions in 1825. As early as 1865 the British Royal Commission started to investigate the health of the river. Since that time, fish passage has been intermittent. Water quality has deteriorated with inputs of various deleterious substances, starting with tannery and sawmill waste products. Since 2016, two large pulp mill spills have dumped more than three million litres of effluent into the river.

In 1991 the St. Croix received Canadian Heritage River status. Although this designation buoyed conservationists and governments, industrial and municipal practices did not change enough for the river to recover. By 2012, the Passamaquoddy Tribal Sovereign Declared a state of emergency.

Conservation and river restoration work has experienced some success. In 2013 international celebrations commemorated the reopening of the Grand Falls Dam fish ladder, which had been closed for more than two decades. Several groups have provided consistent pressure and worked tirelessly to reopen the river, such as the Peskotomuhkati Nation which includes the communities of Sipayik (Pleasant Point) and Motahkomikuk (Indian Township) and Skutik (Schoodic), and the Schoodic Riverkeepers. The removal of the Milltown dam will make millions of square metres of spawning habitat available once again.

NB Power is hosting an open house for the public on July 11, from noon to 4 p.m. at the Royal Canadian Legion in St. Stephen, 43 Queen St W. After the event, the decommissioning project will be registered for an Environmental Impact Assessment with the provincial Department of Environment and Local Government. Following the Environmental Impact Assessment process, NB Power expects that decommissioning activities would start in the fall of 2020 and continue throughout 2021.

Another group excited by the work is the Maritime Social Innovation Lab (MSIL), based in St. Stephen. They believe the station closure will support their work in developing new business and community models. Joel Mason, one of the MSIL founders recently stated, “The power station is a piece of local historic architecture best understood alongside the even more historic architecture of the St. Croix river itself. The station and the river together tell the story of both our historic innovation and our historic extraction and destructive transformation of the natural ecology of the province in which we live.”

Mason said that the power station closure will provide “an opening, but not a forgetting.” His group believes that if the river is allowed to restore itself, local residents will benefit from ” a new (fresh water) experience of the narrative being told by the architecture of the waterway, a way that has borne so many endeavours aloft through the years (human, animal, and plant).”

He added that returning the waterway to its unhindered state will allow people to see the river as: “a multi-pronged community asset and not simply a resource for our use.” He urged everyone to “pay attention to what has gone before and to what responsibilities emerge for us in the future.”

Kim Reeder, a RAVEN research assistant, is involved in many rural community initiatives including MSIL.

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