Rockingham votes on hydro-dam purchase

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(Host) On Monday, voters in Rockingham face a once-in-a-lifetime decision. They’ll vote on whether the town should enter a long-term deal to ultimately own the Bellows Falls hydroelectric plant on the Connecticut River. The decision is complicated by competing interests from two Canadian energy giants, both of whom want to run the dams.

VPR’s Susan Keese Reports.

(Keese) The partnership on the ballot involves Brascan, a large Toronto-based energy company, and a smaller Nova Scotia firm. It came together after a Vermont group specializing in municipally owned power pulled out just over a month ago. The town has a December 1 deadline on its purchase option for the dam.

Under the agreement Brascan would pay $72 million to buy the dam on Rockingham’s behalf. It would then lease the facility for 74 years, after which Rockingham would own it free and clear. No sooner was the Brascan deal announced than TransCanada, another energy giant, sent out letters to town residents. TransCanada urged citizens to vote ‘no’ and offered what they said was a better deal.

Rockingham Select Board Chairman Lamont Barnett is urging people to vote yes.

(Barnett) “If we vote ‘no’ on Tuesday we’re giving up our only position of value.”

(Keese) Barnett spoke after a meeting hosted by TransCanada Sunday. The Select Board’s exclusive agreement with Brascan prevents it from discussing any deal with TransCanada. But Barnett says TransCanada’s sudden interest in Rockingham shows the dam is worth owning.

(Barnett) “The reason they didn’t come forward before now was that they thought our option would expire and they would get the facility. It was only after they realized that we negotiated a deal with Brascan that they knew they had to come through with something.”

(Keese) TransCanada is the lead bidder on the entire system of dams on the Connecticut and Deerfield Rivers. US-Gen New England, the dams’ current owner, is bankrupt and the system is being auctioned off.

Rockingham’s option on the Bellows Falls dam grew out of a long, costly tax battle with US Gen. A few years ago the town voted to look into owning the dam, partly to stabilize its tax base.
The deal with Brascan doesn’t give Rockingham much control over the dam for the next 74 years. But it offers a substantial sum in lieu of taxes each year.

TransCanada says it will top Brascan’s tax offer, but would keep ownership of the dam. Bill Taylor is a company vice president.

(Taylor) “The decision they have to make is if they want to enter the power business versus the alternative, which is what we’re proposing, which is that TransCanada would do what we do for a living, which is own and operate energy infrastructure. And that we will pay stable taxes to the town and not have them need to be concerned about being in the power business.”

(Keese) At the meeting Sunday some residents agreed that the town should stay out of the energy business. Others, including four out of five Select Board members, say it’s in the town’s best interest to control the dam for the long haul.

The vote on the dam purchase will be held Tuesday from 9 to 7 at the Masonic Temple in Bellows Falls.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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