Mayor upset NB Power not entertaining alternate options for Milltown dam

Andrew Sutton/Courier The Milltown Generating Station, built in 1880, is the oldest operating hydroelectric dam in Canada. NB Power will be decommissioning it in the fall, but St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern wants NB Power to be less opaque about the process.

Milltown – In late June of 2019, NB Power announced their intention to decommission and close the Milltown generating station. The dam, built in the 1880’s, is the oldest operating hydroelectric generating station in Canada, and according to NB Power, it accounts for about 0.8 per cent of their hydro generation.

At the time, the President and CEO of the utility, Gaëtan Thomas, said, “We understand that the generating station holds more than a century of history in southwestern New Brunswick and that it touched the lives of many people in the community over the years. This is why we are committed to work with the community through every phase of this project.”

In July of 2019, NB Power held the first of those community input meetings at the Garcelon Civic Center. At the meeting, Gaëtan Thomas assured the community there would be two more public meetings about the decommissioning.

But St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern is concerned that all of the talk of public consultations was simply lip service to a community about to lose one of its landmarks. The first of those two meetings was held at the St. Stephen Legion last year and was attended by MLA Greg Thompson. The second meeting was described by MacEachern as “an unscheduled visit to a retirement home.”

Finally, at an invite only meeting for stakeholders on January 14, 2020, some attendees had concerns about how the project was being planned, who was considered to be a stakeholder, and that alternative options for the dam were not being given a fair shake.

“The decisions had been made already,” said MacEachern, who was on the invite list.

According to the NB Power, they first looked at other options, including refurbishing the dam to extend its service life and improving the fish passage, before determining it wasn’t cost effective. But MacEachern says there are other options on the table – including the acquisition of the dam by other interested parties who would then complete the required work to update it and install a fish passage.

“If there is a viable option to keep it in place why wouldn’t NB Power want to look at that,” he asked.

Kim Reeder, a Bocabec resident who works with the NB Media Co-op as well as seniors programming in Charlotte County, was also one of those on the invite list. She sympathized with MacEachern’s frustration at NB Power’s refusal to entertain other options.

“I’m not so keen on the fact that the decommissioning option was chosen by NB Power without offering a time period during which other proposals could have been brought forward,” she said.

Reeder noted the agenda for the meeting wasn’t sent to participants until the day before the meeting, and once it was sent it was not very informative, consisting only of opening statements and round table discussions, without any hint as to what the topic of those discussions would be.

“The questions and agenda for discussion at the stakeholder event should have been circulated one or two weeks prior, along with assumptions and clarifications,” she said.

Once at the meeting, attendees were greeted with topics such as possible uses for the river after the dam’s removal, and how the various organizations present would like to be involved, but according to Reeder it was lacking plenty of crucial information that stakeholders would want to know.

MacEachern noticed there was very little discussion about the impact the removal will have on the community of Milltown, and little in the way of commitments on the part of NB Power to turn the space into something the town can be proud of.

Both he and Reeder expressed concern a social impact study was not being completed. Reeder also noted no budget or breakdown of the project had been provided by NB Power, and that there was very little information about what happens after the dam is removed.

“There is a social value to the dam, and its place in the community. If fisheries says it has to be removed, and other stakeholders agree, then that’s the way it is – but what I want is NB Power to do the right thing and to sit down with us and have an honest look at the options,” said MacEachern.

NB Power has said previously the decommissioning and deconstruction of the dam will begin in the fall of 2020.