Introducing Pawtucket Dam

August 7, 2013 by Anne Nelson

I am Anne Nelson, associate general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and project manager for our efforts to save the Pawtucket Dam in Lowell, Massachusetts. I will be providing you with updates here as we work with our partners, the Lowell National Historical Park, Preservation Massachusetts and the Lowell Heritage Partnership. While this is a new National Treasure, the National Trust, through the efforts of Rebecca Harris, field officer in our Boston Office, has been involved for several years, and our partners have been dedicated to preserving Pawtucket Dam for more than a decade.

The Pawtucket Dam is a rare hydraulic structure that helped make Lowell the cradle of America’s industrial revolution. The dam is a highly significant structure whose designations provide a variety of legal protections. The Pawtucket Dam is designated as a “contributing resource” to the Lowell Locks and Canals National Historic Landmark (NHL) District, the Lowell National Historical Park and the locally designated Downtown Lowell Historic District.

Since the Pawtucket Dam is in a NHL district and the issuance of a license amendment by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is a federal undertaking, FERC must comply with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Two provisions of the NHPA provide protections to the Pawtucket Dam. Section 106 of the NHPA requires federal agencies to consult with interested parties to develop and evaluate alternatives to an undertaking that could avoid, minimize or mitigate adverse effects on historic properties. Section 110(f) of the NHPA provides further protection for NHLs by requiring federal agencies to undertake the necessary planning and actions to minimize harm to a landmark “to the maximum extent possible.” The local district designation requires the approval of the Lowell Historic Board prior to changes to the resource.

But most importantly, and uniquely, the Pawtucket Dam is protected by the Lowell National Historical Park Act (Lowell Act). The Lowell Act was passed in 1978 when the park was established and prohibits all federal agencies from issuing any license or permit to any person conducting an activity in the park unless the agency determines that the proposed activity: (1) is consistent with the park’s Standards for Rehabilitation and Construction; and (2) will not have an adverse effect on the resources of the park or the preservation district. The federal agency is also required to consult with, cooperate with, and to the maximum extent practicable, coordinate its activities with the Secretary of the Interior and the Lowell Historic Board.

In our view, FERC has not complied with these laws prior to approving the company’s request to replace the historic wooden flashboard system of the Pawtucket Dam with an inflatable bladder system. Contrary to guidance provided by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Lowell National Historical Park, the Massachusetts Historical Commission, Preservation Massachusetts, the National Trust, and others, FERC found that the action would not adversely affect the Pawtucket Dam, the NHL district, the local historic district or the park. The dam is the centerpiece of a cohesive collection of significant early industrial resources that have been specifically designated and protected for their integrity and immense importance to our national heritage. The National Trust and its partners, therefore, plan to work together to defend these laws and protect the Pawtucket Dam.

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