Proposed Milltown generating station and dam removal, an apology and local perspectives

Written by Kim Reeder on July 17, 2019

Water tower on US side from Salmon Falls, before the larger dam was built. Photo from the St. Croix Historical Society, permission to share granted.

NB Power announced at the end of June that it would close its Milltown generating station and remove the dam. As a long term resident of the area, and in preparation for the NB Power Open House on July 11, I took the opportunity to visit what was once known as Siqoniw Utenehsis (an ancient Passamaquoddy fishing village). The village, more recently known as Salmon Falls, is the location of the Milltown station. I made this trip to ground myself, to get perspective.

The land, water and infrastructure discussed at the Open House is a part not only of my story but also a much longer story of community connection and connection to the elements. I went to the land now known as Salmon Falls Park to look for guidance, to ‘see’ the trans-contextual history. I had seen the environmental, social, spiritual and economic components before, but on this day, I was looking to see the ‘system’ as a whole, the relationships.

As I stood next to the river, inaccessible due to a chain link fence, I watched a bald eagle follow the path of the Skutik’s (Schoodic/St. Croix), flying downriver, and wondered what difference to his life the decommissioning of the dam may make. I walked to the top of the knoll and tried to envision Siqoniw Utenehsis as it used to be. Even as recently as 2018, Peskotomuhkati artifacts were found close to the dam, drawing attention to the need for a careful and deliberate decommissioning process. I then proceeded to the Open House to envision what the Skutik and community may be in the future.

Champlain spoke of our beautiful river as “the river of the Etechemins,” referencing the local Indigenous language. However upon arrival at the local Legion (the meeting venue), NB Power did not include a land acknowledgement or Indigenous ceremony to open its Open House on the closure of the Milltown Dam. By noon, a growing number of community members, local NB Power employees, elected representatives, Peskotomuhkati nation members, and non-governmental organization representatives were chatting in small groups. An additional 10 or so NB Power employees from out of town were on hand to answer questions, as well as a few representatives from regional non-profit organizations among the approximately 50 people gathered.

After a short time of individual and small group discussions, NB Power’s CEO and President Gaëtan Thomas welcomed everyone, introduced his team members and elected government representatives, but again, did not officially recognize the third Nation present.

Thomas outlined the process that culminated in NB Power’s decision to shutter the hydro-electric generating station, including a business case using in-house financial modelling but not a feasibility study. He said that NB Power’s mandate is to, “always take the cheapest option available.”

Although Thomas encouraged an open house style meeting, the crowd seemed to be enjoying the more formal information and Q&A format. The community’s questions formed around three themes: the element of surprise regarding the decision to close Milltown; the potential interactions and impacts of the closure and the upriver dams; and biophysical impacts including sediment transport, fish and fish passage.

MP for New Brunswick Southwest Karen Ludwig, as an audience member, described her participation to date in the process, including an open-house meeting, a tour of the Milltown station and a briefing by NB Power about a 50-year revitalization plan for the generating station. Ludwig therefore expressed complete surprise about the decision to close the station. She asked about opportunities for other entities to step in and take over operations, questioned who was responsible for the decommissioning costs, and commented on the need for, “a very strong conversation with the Woodland mill, in terms of sediment.”

In response, Thomas said the business case isn’t there for continuing to operate Milltown and that although NB Power is responsible for decommissioning costs, he is hoping for federal help. Regarding potential impacts related to Woodland and sediment flows, he said, “we are not going to look into whether dams up the river are going to be decommissioned or not…but if there is any cross-impact, with sediment, this will be part of the study.”

Regarding the surprise expressed by both MP Ludwig, and the St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern, Thomas stated, “I had full intention (to refurbish) until a few weeks ago…but we found out we can’t afford it.” He offered that the “decision was not made two years ago, but a Board meeting ago…in order to do that, we had to work on a communication plan, but we did not do the best at executing that communication plan. I was completely sure that your Mayor had been consulted, to at least inform him,” adding, “this is the first of many meetings…we will consult you, promise.” He did not shy away from an apology and guaranteed, “we probably started off on the wrong foot, but we’re going to make it up.”

Other community members voiced apprehension and excitement. St. Stephen Town Councillor Marg Harding had concerns about the view from her house. Another long-term Milltown resident relayed the stories of her father monitoring the river, and discussed pollution issues. She stated, “if you want to get rid of a dam, get rid of the one in Woodland!” Indeed, this would likely help with water quality issues, whereas the Milltown removal is a benefit to fish access. Additionally, residents made comments about the dam’s connection to the area’s identity and community pride. Rescue of some of the built infrastructure components was encouraged. Thomas empathized, saying, “we don’t want to close Milltown on our 100th anniversary either…the dam is older than the company.”

Also mentioned was the potential influence of the decommissioning on hydrology and flooding. Company representatives said that ground and surface water will be studied, but because Milltown is a run of the river dam with no storage component, decommissioning will not likely have a major hydrological impact. However, modelling will be completed to determine how the river will spread in a flooding situation and during various parts of the tidal cycle.

In response to concerns about the cumulative impacts of the project, Thomas said, “the issue about the other dam is unfortunately, hard to answer because we don’t have any control and we won’t be doing those studies.” He estimated that the fish passage for the proposed project, at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, would cost more than $10 million because more than 20 fish species are affected. NB Power anticipates that with the dam removed, many St. Croix species will be able to access the 16km upriver to the Woodland dam. The next step in the decommissioning process will be the New Brunswick Environmental Impact Assessment registration.

Even with the eyes of all the rights holders, stakeholders, proponent and regulators on the project, and my personal the celebrations for the renewed river access, I will remain vigilant. In the words of Cynthia Howland, Executive Assistant to Peskotomuhkati Sakom Hugh Akagi “everybody has a truth…it just so happens that though our truths co-exist, they are different.” I will attempt to keep these wise words close to my heart, and allow them to guide my considerations and voice during the decommissioning and renewal process.

Kim Reeder is a RAVEN project research assistant who is involved in many rural community initiatives. She intends to write further stories for the NB Media Co-op about the Milltown dam decommissioning process.

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