FirstLight restructuring in question

  • The Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Facility, operated by FirstLight Hydro Generating Co., uses water from the Connecticut River. Staff File Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 9/17/2019 9:42:35 PM

FirstLight Hydro Generating Co.’s plan to restructure into two smaller companies has hit a speed bump, or perhaps even come to a full stop.

Despite receiving federal approval in July, the case is now being re-examined by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) due to a claim that FirstLight violated the terms of its operating license earlier this year.

FirstLight operates two power-generating hydro dams in Montague, and a water-pump power generator at Northfield Mountain. These two locations have operated as a single power company.

However, FirstLight’s federal licenses for operating its facilities are due for renewal. The company’s work of relicensing through FERC began in 2013, and is ongoing. A license renewal typically takes about five years, Gill Selectboard members have said.

In December 2018, FirstLight requested that FERC allow the company to split its Northfield and Montague locations into two separate companies. Town officials were, for the most part, skeptical of the plan. Many expressed concerns that, as two limited liability companies, the power facilities would individually be less liable for maintaining the river than FirstLight has been in its present configuration as a single company.

FERC approved FirstLight’s proposal in July. At the time, the towns of Montague, Gill and Northfield as well as other local groups that are legally recognized as stakeholders were unsure whether to appeal the decision. There are 11 legally recognized stakeholders, including the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, the Connecticut River Conservancy and the Elnu tribe of Abenaki.

Only one of them filed an appeal within the window of time allowed by FERC: Karl Meyer, a Greenfield resident who is on the fish and aquatics team for FERC’s relicensing of the Northfield Mountain facility, and who happens to be the only individual person on the list of the 11 legally recognized stakeholders.

“My bottom-line interest is to give a voice to the Connecticut River,” Meyer said.

Meyer claims that, in May, FirstLight cut off the flow of the river at Rock Dam in Montague, despite having been alerted to the presence of shortnose sturgeon, an endangered fish that spawns in the area around Rock Dam. This would constitute a violation of the terms of FirstLight’s operating license, Meyer said. In his appeal to FERC, Meyer argues that such a violation makes FirstLight ineligible for the change to its licenses that it has requested.

Meyer argues that federal environmental law prohibits cutting off the flow of a river when it is known that an endangered fish is present. The incident also reveals, he said, that the Northfield and Montague locations do not fully coordinate their operations, which they are required to do per the terms of their license agreement with FERC.

FERC answered Meyer last week, saying that it will hold a rehearing on FirstLight’s request. At the very least, FERC will issue a finding, Meyer said, but he has no idea when.

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