AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Three decades ago this year, construction on New England’s largest public works project was to have begun, but instead a shovel was never put in the Earth, and the massive endeavor was eventually abandoned.
The hydroelectric project along northern Maine’s St. John River would have flooded 88,000 acres of forest and streams in the name of cheap power. But a prolonged fight with opponents, huge cost overruns and erosion of support from the state’s congressional delegation kept it from ever being built.
Congress first authorized the project, known as Dickey-Lincoln, at a cost of $219 million in 1965. But through the following inflation-riddled years, its cost escalated, eventually reaching more than $900 million by the early 1980s. The cost covered twin power dams producing 830 megawatts and transmission lines from them.
Construction of Dickey-Lincoln, which would have stopped up 55 miles of the St. John, was scheduled to begin in 1983. As first envisioned, the project was to build a 335-foot dam and 760-megawatt generating station in the small town of Dickey, upstream from the confluence of the Allagash and St. John rivers. A smaller dam 11 miles downstream at Lincoln School would have had a 70-megawatt power plant.
With elected officials’ support fraying, and environmentalists and sporting enthusiasts battling it, the project was scaled back to a $175 million proposal, simply called Lincoln School.
But finally, in 1984, then-Sen. George Mitchell, the Maine Democrat later known as a champion of tougher environmental laws, said he could no longer ‘‘in good conscience’’ support Lincoln School.
Mitchell noted that his decision came as the government was trying to deal with big budget deficits. He also pointed to a finding by the Army Corps of Engineers that the project was not a sound financial investment. Maine’s other senator at the time, Republican William Cohen, who had opposed the project, said he was pleased with Mitchell’s decision.
Supporters of the project, including organized labor, said it would provide low-cost electricity and decrease dependence on foreign oil. They also contended that once the project was built the cost to operate it would be minimal. They saw the project as an economic dynamo for the low-income region of Maine.
But opponents said that projected costs were understated because the plan used unrealistically low government interest rate for financing it. They said the project would destroy a wild, whitewater river and flood valuable forest land.
Even in 1978, independent Gov. James Longley stated his opposition to Dickey-Lincoln.
‘‘I was looking for reasons to build the project,’’ Longley said. But he found no positives that were not overwhelmingly offset by negatives.