FirstLight relicensing proposal receives mixed response

Company garners praise for potentially improving Connecticut River ecology, but criticism regarding outdoor recreation facilities

  • The Connecticut River below the dam in Turners Falls, pictured in January 2019, can be used for whitewater sports with controlled releases from the dam. The river can run low at times in this stretch, with most of the water diverted into the canal to generate power. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • FirstLight operates three power-generating facilities on the local stretch of the Connecticut River — two hydro-electric dams in Turners Falls, one pictured, and a hydro-pump facility at Northfield Mountain. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 12/9/2020 4:48:43 PM

MONTAGUE — A proposal by the FirstLight Hydro Generating Co. that will determine its interactions with the local landscape for the next 50 years has been praised for potentially improving the ecology of the local stretch of the Connecticut River, but also criticized as a missed opportunity to improve the company’s outdoor recreation facilities.

FirstLight is in the process of relicensing its three facilities on the local stretch of the Connecticut River — a hydro-pump facility at Northfield Mountain and two hydro-electric dams in Turners Falls.

The licenses, issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), last 50 years. The expiring licenses were granted in 1968.

The Connecticut River Conservancy, a group that advocates for the health of the river, has emphasized that environmental law has changed in the last 50 years since the original license was granted, and that the community will be stuck with the final agreement for the next 50 years.

“This is a generational conversation. There is a tremendous opportunity to be able to improve the ecological health of the river,” said Andrew Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Conservancy.

Last week, FirstLight filed a 700-page license application with FERC, which is expected to be the company’s final proposal.

For local stakeholders, the two major points of interest in the relicensing negotiations are FirstLight’s obligations to the ecology of the river and the company’s investment in outdoor recreation resources.

The three facilities have been criticized in the past for their impact on the river and surrounding environment. The Connecticut River Conservancy has said that dams have affected fish migration, and that the changes in riverflow have affected wildlife habitats and caused excessive erosion of the riverbanks. The Northfield Mountain hydro-pump storage facility has also been criticized for its impact on fish populations.

In those regards, FirstLight’s proposal is an improvement in some ways, said Andrea Donlon, who works for the Connecticut River Conservancy to advocate for the local stretch of the river.

A system to safely move fish through the dams has been proposed by FirstLight, modeled after a successful system at the Holyoke dam.

Changes to the facilities’ operations would cause less severe fluctuations in the river flow, making it “more like a natural river,” Donlon said.

However, FirstLight’s proposal doesn’t directly remediate the alleged problems with erosion of the riverbank. FirstLight claims, based on scientific studies, that its operations have caused erosion in only two places, one of which has already been remediated. The other instance of erosion, FirstLight claims, is largely caused by boat traffic and natural river activity. The company’s studies found that only 8 percent of that erosion can be traced to its facilities.

“We feel that this report and analysis was very flawed,” Donlon said. “The daily fluctuation up and down of the river really does contribute to erosion, and we think they should be doing something about it.”

At the Northfield Mountain facility, FirstLight has proposed adding protective netting to minimize the facility’s effect on fish in the river. Fisk said the net would have only a “minor impact.”

“There are things that we still have issues with,” Donlon said. “But overall, what they’ve proposed is an improvement.”

FirstLight also provides public recreation facilities as part of its license agreement. The company’s proposal includes $5.6 million in investments, including building four new river access points and upgrading an access point at Poplar Street in Turners Falls.

Donlon said the plan is mostly a continuation of the facilities developed in the 1960s — even the new installations will be of the same kind as the old ones, she noted.

“The new put-ins will be used and they are needed, but we feel that this is not enough of an investment,” she said.

FirstLight emphasized that, in its proposal, it commits $130 million in new investments for river management, and foregoes $100 million in energy revenue over the next 50 years, due to the proposed changes in its power generation practices.

Following the company’s submission of its relicensing application to FERC last week, the commission will review the application, may request more information if needed, conduct its own environmental analyses, and then open for public comments or legal motions to intervene. That process will likely take at least a year, Fisk said.

“Now it’s up to the public to advance their interests,” he said. “We do believe there is more that can be achieved. The applications are not signed and sealed here.”

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.


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