Wiscasset residents are bracing for an Election Day showdown over the fate of a proposed coal-gasification power plant and diesel refinery. Depending on who you believe, Twin Rivers Energy Center will either solve the town’s fiscal worries, or destroy the very image “Maine’s Prettiest Village” has tried so hard to project. Despite fierce local opposition evident at town hearings and signature drives, Wiscasset selectmen last month voted 3-1 to place an ordinance change on the local referendum ballot that would raise the height limit of structures from 75 to 230 feet. The developer, Point East, has indicated that the project needs the height amendment in order to move forward.

The Twin Rivers Energy facility would occupy an 80-acre site, formerly the home of the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant, less than three miles downstream on the Back River from Wiscasset. The name makes for a nice image for a project being touted by the developer as a clean energy facility. The Back and Sheepscot Rivers would also be the route for barge transport of thousands of tons per day of coal to feed the power plant. So far, however, Point East/Twin Rivers has been short on specifics about actual volumes of coal, the proposed route for barge traffic, volume and sources of process water required, and other details. They will need to disclosed specifics in local, state and federal permitting.

Point East contends this is an appropriate re-use of the Maine Yankee property. Opponents contend that there is no compatibility between the developer’s claims of a clean, safe, energy facility and the long-term health of the Sheepscot estuary and the quality of life it offers its residents.

Lobsterman Stott Carleton fishes out of Edgecomb on the Edna Mae, and he puts at 40 the number of lobstering families that he thinks would be put out of work if the plant were permitted. “There is not room in Sheepscot Bay or the river for all the traps that will be displaced,” says Carleton. “There’s only one Sheepscot River in the whole world. The best lobsters in the world are caught in our river.”

Point East rode into Wiscasset three years ago to open arms. (Point East is the name for the Maine office of Greenwich, Connecticut-based National RE/sources Inc., a firm specializing in redevelopment of former industrial sites known as “brownfields.”) The company purchased 450 acres adjacent to the former Maine Yankee nuclear power station and the 30-acre site of Mason Station — the now-defunct, massive brick oil-fired power plant formerly run by Florida Power and Light on the Sheepscot River. Point East continues to promote its vision of a high-end lifestyle campus featuring water’s edge condos with “walls of waterfront windows.” The corporate website still touts a new “maritime village” on the Mason Station site with “elegant boutiques, art galleries, microbreweries and fine restaurants,” and a full-service marina with 239 slips. Last month, Hinckley Yacht Services, the corporate partner for the marina, pulled out. No condos have been sold, and no work has begun on the marina. The plan was well received when it was rolled out three years ago. Today, talk in town and on the river centers around the compatibility of an upscale maritime village three miles downwind of a 230-foot industrial coal gasification plant and diesel refinery.


For years the Maine Yankee reactor symbolized Wiscasset’s tight balancing act between cheap electric power and a commercial tax base that was the envy of the state, and the threat of a nuclear accident and problematic disposal of spent radioactive fuel rods. Carleton and others are wary that Wiscasset residents remember well the ease of life during the years Maine Yankee paid Wiscasset’s taxes. “One fisherman told me, `You’re not going to win this, because Wiscasset smells tax relief.’ I told him this is a jewel we need to fight for, for our kids and grandkids. The status quo for our river valley has been good for a long time. One town could vote to get their taxes lowered and it could wipe out the entire Sheepscot valley from being a desirable place to live and work.”

Wiscasset concluded a long comprehensive planning process last November dedicated to exactly that end. The plan was accepted by a 3-1 margin. John Reinhardt, owner of the High Note Bed & Breakfast, served on the planning committee. He is active in Stewards of the Sheepscot (SOS), which opposes the project. “As we worked on the [comprehensive] plan we never envisioned that area to become heavy industry,” says Reinhardt. “We really have to look at what we’re going to look like in ten years with a coal plant. We never thought of anything sited there but light industry that doesn’t adversely impact the environment. But the town attorney opined otherwise. Did anyone talk to the people who helped write it?”

According to a written opinion by town attorney Dennis Jumper, the gasification plant is consistent with the comprehensive plan. Jeffrey Hinderliter, Wiscasset’s planner, concurs that the two sites owned by Point East — the Maine Yankee tract and Mason Station — are for “totally different uses — if you put them side by side, a heavy industrial use next to a mixed-residential neighborhood concept, I couldn’t see them being compatible,” says Hinderliter. “As a bird flies, they’re relatively close, but it’s not like they’re abutting land uses. They’re two to three miles apart. The coal plant is downstream on the Back River.

Back River Bottleneck

Fishermen and other waterfront interests familiar with the Back River’s shallow, snaking channel wonder how coal-barge traffic will access the power plant. “There are portions of the Back River that are difficult to navigate with a regular boat, let alone a barge,” says Hinderliter. “The only alternate water access is to come up the Sheepscot, around the top of Westport Island and then downstream.”

That would pose problems for fishermen, and especially the North End Lobster Co-op on Westport Island. Tugs towing a coal barge would wreak havoc on lobster gear in the river and its approaches, they contend. According to Reinhardt, the coal plant’s sponsors have remained evasive on the subject of access. “We haven’t been getting answers from Twin Rivers about how they plan to get the coal in; we can’t pin them down. We know that they’ll probably have to barge it, either up the Sheepscot River or through Hell’s Gate to the Back River. It would be devastating to the clammers, wormers, lobstermen — anyone who’s got a livelihood on the river,” says Reinhardt.

Steve Hinchman, lead attorney in the case for the Conservation Law Foundation, says that beyond crashing the marine-related economy in the region, a coal gasification facility of the size and scope being proposed in Wiscasset would double the greenhouse gases emitted by Maine for power generation, and cost upwards of $3 billion — far more than estimates offered by Point East. Hinchman notes that Point East has nowhere near the capacity for such a project, and is looking for large corporate energy partners to hand the project over to, which Point East has acknowledged publicly.

“The project as described today and the one we’re going to see aren’t going to look alike,” says Hinchman. “Once the real energy developer comes in, it will minimize costs: there will be no enclosed steel building for the gas plant. No indoor coal storage. You’ll have tall silos. The promises we are hearing, and the reality of current best technology in the industry, are miles apart. This project is non-competitive. So what are the real dangers on the line? Anything that burns, they can gasify. It could be set up to take trash barges from New York City. The working waterfront, air quality, noise and light pollution, and scenic and recreational values are all at risk.”

In the weeks to come, residents of the midcoast will hear a lot more about the Twin Rivers Energy Center, both in favor of and against the proposal. While many fear that Wiscasset’s selectmen have already relinquished local control by allowing a referendum vote on the height ordinance amendment, Hinderliter, the town planner, sees if differently. “If the referendum passes, it doesn’t give Twin Rivers authorization at the local level. It’s not the golden ticket.”

In fact, if the referendum passes in November, Twin Rivers will face a long permitting process that only starts in Wiscasset, and must navigates multiple state and federal government agencies. If the referendum fails in November? Hinderliter has an answer. “Our vision for this 450 acres would be developed in a master plan concept, looking at it as one big planned development district, with a purpose statement, minimum requirements, suggested uses. Big projects like this [Twin Rivers] make it hard to do the progressive planning we need to do. Reactionary stuff needs to end.”

After November’s referendum, Wiscasset will be either in reactive mode, or trying to plan its future before the next mega-proposal comes along.