Topsham to draft rules banning river access near hydro plant

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TOPSHAM — The Board of Selectmen on Feb. 15 will to review draft ordinance language prohibiting activity in the Androscoggin River on both sides of a power plant.

Across the river, the Brunswick Town Council plans to discuss the matter March 5.

Brookfield Renewable, owner of the Brunswick Hydroelectric Facility on the Androscoggin, has asked both towns to consider creation of a water safety zone that would ban people from using 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 Topsham residents would have to approve at Town Meeting in May, would empower police departments to enforce trespassing rules.

Brookfield noted 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.”

Although Brookfield has approached the communities about its concerns, and a warning signage plan was established, “the safety issues are still present … and every year we or Brunswick have rescue teams in the river hauling people out who get stuck, or get caught on the rocks,” Topsham Town Manager explained to the Board of Selectmen during its Feb. 1 meeting.

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

People cannot be blamed for wanting to use the river after Maine’s long winters, but during the spring they can underestimate the power of the current, placing their safety in jeopardy and requiring emergency responses, Edwards explained.

Although Brookfield installs safety barriers each year to prevent people getting too close to the dam, “because of the location and the large head pond, and the high flow conditions and swift currents, it’s difficult for our crews to get in there safely by the time of that mid- to late-April first 75-degree day,” she said.

Pam Leduc, the town’s parks and recreation director and resident of the neighborhood in question, said “I do know how hard (Brookfield has) tried to meet us halfway, with what’s safe and what works … without taking the beauty of the river away.”

The ordinance would regard the water itself, and not the edges of the land, Selectman Chairman Dave Douglass said.

“Every time you send a fireman to go get somebody out, or every time you send a police officer to get somebody out, we have a liability,” he added, noting that as a Brunswick firefighter from 1996-2006, “I personally have pulled 13 people out of that stretch of the river, because there is no enforcement.”

All 13 were teenagers, Douglass said. “Obviously we’re not going to fine a minor, but there ought to be a consideration that the parents of such minor (be fined),” he suggested.

Yvette Meunier of Prospect Street asked that rescue data be made available, which Roedner plans to have ready by Feb. 15.

Rescues are made at least three to four times a year, according to Mike Labbe, the town’s deputy fire-rescue chief. “Usually they’re jumping off the Swinging Bridge. They’ve jumped off the Black Bridge,” and a drowning occurred about 11 years ago, requiring the river to be drained to find the body, he said.

While the river is usually safe, “it’s when they operate the dam … and raise those floodgates, the water comes up or goes down quickly, and that’s when you have those problems.”

Phin White of Bridge Street pointed out that while the point of concern is a stretch between the bridges, “that happens to be the area where we’ve developed these two wonderful paths, and after that, there’s no path; it’s private land.”

“I love seeing people swimming, fishing, in the Androscoggin; it tells me that I live in a really nice community,” he said, praising those activities as quintessential to summers in Maine, particularly given the improved quality of the river in recent years.

“If you cut them off from that, where are they going to go?” White asked.

The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to have Roedner assemble an ordinance prohibiting water use from 500 feet downstream of the hydroelectric facility to about 3,000 feet upstream of the facility, as requested by Brookfield.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. 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.).

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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.