Utility dismisses objections to extra winter river pumping

  • Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project upper reservoir. Recorder file photo

Recorder Staff
Sunday, November 12, 2017

The operator of the Northfield Mountain pumped storage plant, which has again asked for temporary permission to pump extra river water into its mountaintop reservoir this winter, has rejected arguments by opponents of the plan, claiming it will not worsen river bank erosion or harm fish habitat.

FirstLight Hydro Generating Co. applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Sept. 11 to allow it to increase the operating limits of the reservoir to expand its capacity to generate power when necessary from Dec. 1 through next March 31.

The plant’s owner, which also has submitted a FERC application for renewal of its 49-year-old operating license for Northfield Mountain and for the Turners Falls hydroelectric plant, has received approval for similar temporary pumping levels for several years, at first tied to emergency declarations by the regional electrical system’s independent operator, but in recent years with no such tie-in.

Last winter, however, FERC, seemingly in response to concerns raised by the regional council of town governments and nonprofit Connecticut River Conservancy, restricted use of the additional water storage to officially declared power generation emergencies.

The underground pumped-storage power plant, which uses Connecticut River water pumped up the mountain overnight, when electricity prices are lowest, releases it when there is peak demand and prices are highest, providing the region’s electricity grid with 1,168 megawatts of on-demand power.

FirstLight cited relicensing studies filed in April that it says showed “that increasing the useable storage volume of the upper reservoir does not have any impact on streambank erosion,” and asked for the temporary amendment to be granted without restriction.

Yet the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and the Conservancy, in their joint intervention, say, “We are concerned with the undermining of banks at the toe of the slope, which begins the cycle of erosion. The daily difference between the maximum and minimum (river) pool elevation, a change in the average elevation of the pool, and the duration and speed of elevation change in the pool height are all factors that can contribute to a notching at the toe of the slope, sometimes acting in concert with other influences such as ice in the winter and natural high flow events.”

Franklin Regional Planning Board member Tom Miner, who serves as the board’s liaison with the Connecticut River Streambank Erosion Committee, told the panel last week, “The issues we’re raising are that they haven’t done an adequate assessment of the impact of using that extra capacity of water flushing up and down the mountain, and whether there’s a need for this power for the grid, instead of basing it on extra revenue for having the ability to generate quickly.”

A greater concern, as FirstLight has filed the last of its studies as part of an integrated licensing process for dams along the river, is that FERC may formally accept that company’s license application as completed, triggering the agency’s environmental review process without having given the public a chance to respond to studies about the effects of extra pumping in winter.

The original draft application, filed in December 2015, lacked any specificity for public comment, said Donlon, so her nonprofit environmental organization is seeking a new draft to trigger a comment period in a process that has been two years overdue on a license due to expire April 30.

Even more concerning, said Miner — who. like Donlon, has been meeting with FirstLight and other agencies to negotiate settlements on river flow, fish passage, recreation facilities and erosion — is that in its study for the relicensing, the company “diminished or absolutely brushed aside any conclusion that they are responsible for significant erosion” or harmful effects on aquatic life as a result of the hydroelectric project.

“We believe quite strongly that that’s not been a real conclusion,” said Miner, who hopes to involve the state Department of Environmental Protection to ensure that the project doesn’t add to erosion problems along a 20-mile stretch of riverbank.