Lone fish: FERC denies FirstLight temporary license change

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

Recorder Staff
Published: 1/18/2018 7:25:18 PM

NORTHFIELD — A lone shortnose sturgeon in the Connecticut River near the Vernon Dam has caused federal regulators to deny a temporary license change for the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project.

The generator station’s owner, FirstLight Hydro Generating Co., wanted to pump extra river water into its mountaintop reservoir to generate more electricity in winter.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday denied the FirstLight request to amend its Northfield Mountain license through March 1 — based on Endangered Species Act concerns, which it termed “a significant new circumstance.”

The amendment would have allowed FirstLight to extend by 22 feet the upper and lower limits of its mountaintop reservoir, providing for an additional 3,009 acre-feet of water capacity to increase maximum daily power generation at the 1,167-megawatt hydroelectric project by an additional 1.8 hours at peak load.

But the fact last August’s confirmed catch of a shortnose sturgeon just downstream of the Vernon Dam — above what was historically recognized as the endangered fish’s upstream range — raised red flags for the National Marine Fisheries Service, which intervened on Oct. 30 over concerns that a population of the endangered species might be harmed.

In response to those concerns, “FirstLight asserted that the temporary amendment would not affect shortnose sturgeon because the timing, rate, magnitude and frequency of water surface elevation fluctuations in both the upper and the lower reservoirs would not be materially different under the temporary amendment,” FERC noted.

Without knowing whether other shortnose sturgeon are in that stretch of river, which would require consulting with the National Marine Fisheries Service about the proposed amendment, FERC noted that, “It does not appear possible that the consultation process can be completed before March 31.”

FirstLight declined to comment for this article.

The decision surprised local environmental groups, which have rarely seen a rejection by FERC.

“We’re just really pleased that FERC took such a close look at this,” said Kimberly Noake MacPhee, natural resource planner with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. “My sense is that this is a pretty big development.”

Given that long-term relicensing of FirstLight’s hydroelectric facilities along the Connecticut River are also being weighed by FERC, Connecticut River Conservancy River Steward Andrea Donlon said, “This hints at the need to figure this out for relicensing, too,” in case there is a population of shortnose sturgeon in that stretch of river.

FERC noted that any similar license amendment request “should be filed a sufficient time before the winter season such that any necessary (endangered species act) … consultation can be completed in a timely manner. They should also, FERC noted, be limited to discretionary actions during emergency operations declared by the electric grid’s Independent System Operator, as was the case when FirstLight began seeking the temporary amendments.

The power generator company has been granted six similar wintertime exceptions to its license in recent years, adding to the surprise this time.

On the Web: http://bit.ly/2FRUl9u

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You can reach Richie Davis at rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269




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