Topsham, state to discuss river activity ban near hydro plant

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TOPSHAM — After discussion and no formal action Feb. 15, the Board of Selectmen on March 1 will consider a revised proposal to prohibit activity in the Androscoggin River on both sides of a power plant.

In the meantime, Town Manager Rich Roedner plans to meet with state agencies to settle questions about who has jurisdiction on that part of the river – specifically, whether the town and Brunswick can instate such a ban.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is due to set up the meeting, Roedner said Tuesday. Representatives from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and Brookfield Renewable – owner of the Brunswick Hydroelectric Facility on the Androscoggin – are also to attend, and Roedner expects that Brunswick officials will be there, too.

Brookfield has asked the towns to consider creation of a water safety zone that would prohibit use of the river from the downstream side of the Frank J. Wood Bridge (the “Green Bridge”), to the upstream side of the Maine Department of Transportation’s railroad bridge (the “Black Bridge”).

The ordinance, which Town Meeting would have to approve in May, would empower police departments to enforce trespassing rules. A public hearing on the matter could be held April 5, when the Board of Selectmen is due to approve other warrant articles for Town Meeting.

The big question Roedner wants to answer, before reporting back to selectmen March 1, is “what level of jurisdiction do we even have to regulate activities in the river,” he said.

“This is tied up under various permits that the state has issued,” he said. “So what authority has been either delegated to Brookfield by the state that we don’t have access to, or under statutory law, what authority does IF&W have that we might not be able to do anything about?”

Should it turn out that neither Topsham nor Brunswick have that power, any creation of regulatory ordinances would be moot, Roedner said.

Town Attorney Mary Costigan, who reviewed Roedner’s draft ordinance, suggested contacting Inland Fisheries about the jurisdictional question, Roedner told selectmen Feb. 15. He said Tim Peabody, the agency’s deputy commissioner, said, “they have the potential for generic concerns” which should be addressed.

Brookfield stated in a January memo to the Topsham board that the area around its plant “is widely used for recreational activities such as swimming, boating, and fishing by community members. While many areas of the river are safe for such recreational activities, there are portions upstream and downstream of the hydroelectric facility that pose public safety risks.”

Brookfield operates about 50 facilities in the northeast and 170 across North America, Samantha Edwards, the company’s community relations manager, told the panel earlier this month. Of those, the Androscoggin facility presents “some of the highest risks,” she said. 

The two local fire departments have made 14 individual rescues in the area since 2007, and Topsham Police have made 21 calls to the Swinging Bridge since 2006, Roedner reported in a Feb. 8 memo to the board. Drownings occurred in 2009 and 2014.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Brookfield Renewable, owner of the Brunswick Hydroelectric Facility on the Androscoggin River, wants Topsham and Brunswick to enact and enforce new trespassing rules around the property.

A proposed safety zone around the Brunswick Hydroelectric Facility on the Androscoggin River would run from the upstream side of the Maine Department of Transportation’s railroad bridge (southwest of the Swinging Bridge), to the downstream side of the Frank J. Wood Bridge (southwest of Sea Dog Brewing Co.).

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.