FERC allows FirstLight restructure, rejects appeal

  • The hydro-electric dam in Turners Falls is one of three facilities that are affected by the restructuring of the FirstLight Hydro Generating Co. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 11/28/2019 1:05:18 AM

A somewhat controversial restructuring of the FirstLight Hydro Generating Co. is still being allowed by federal regulators, despite a legal appeal filed this summer by a Greenfield resident challenging it.

FirstLight owns three power facilities on this section of the Connecticut River: a hydro-pump facility at Northfield Mountain and two hydroelectric dams in Turners Falls.

The company’s federal license for operating these facilities was granted in 1968, and is good for 50 years. The company started its license renewal process in 2012, and it is still ongoing.

At the end of 2018, FirstLight requested that the licensing agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), change the license to allow the company to restructure. The plan was: the Northfield facility would be one company; the two Turners Falls facilities would be a separate company; and these two companies would be owned by a single parent company.

FERC accepted the restructuring proposal this summer. The selectboards of Gill and Montague expressed concerns over how the restructuring might affect the companies’ financial abilities to maintain the river. Although the towns were legally recognized as stakeholders, they did not take legal action. Other stakeholders include the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, the Elnu Tribe of Abenaki and a handful of river management groups.

The only legal appeal of the decision came from Greenfield resident Karl Meyer, the only individual on the list of stakeholders. Meyer claimed that FirstLight had broken the terms of its license, citing a specific incident this spring, and therefore should not be eligible for the change it requested.

Specifically, Meyer claimed that FirstLight drew down the water level of the river while the endangered shortnose sturgeon fish were spawning in that section of the river on specific dates in May. This would be a violation of environmental law, he said. He also argued that the alleged incident represented a failure of FirstLight to properly coordinate the operations of its facilities in Northfield and Turners Falls as required in the terms of its federal license.

Meyer’s appeal was filed in August. Last week, FERC formally rejected the appeal on technical grounds: Meyer’s letter was not formatted with the correct headings.

FERC’s rejection of Meyer’s appeal, legally, had nothing to do with the arguments he made, but FERC’s report detailing the decision does get into the details of the specific points he brought up.

First, there was no clear evidence that FirstLight had improperly interacted with the endangered sturgeon, FERC concluded. Meyer said that the fish had been spotted and documented in the area between May 9 and May 16; on May 17 the river was drawn down, and the fish were gone. Even so, FERC concluded, these facts alone do not demonstrate that the power company’s actions harmed the fish.

“I still stand by my contention, and I believe biologists would agree with me,” Meyer said Wednesday.

FERC also stated that the requirement for the two locations to coordinate their operations only means they must not interfere with one another’s operations; it doesn’t have anything to do with being mindful of animals in the river.

Meyer said he expects there will be no way to push the issue further. If nothing else, he said, at least the points he raised are now in the public record, and may serve some future purpose if similar issues bubble up again.

As for the towns that had expressed some concern about the restru, the Gill Selectboard remains interested. Town Administrator Ray Purington said he is still looking into how the licenses’ terms regarding river maintenance may change in the relicensing process, and whether it will be possible for the power companies to continue to negotiate those terms after the new licenses have been granted.

“It’s not a finished issue for us,” Purington said.

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