My Turn: Is anyone holding FirstLight accountable?

Published: 6/7/2021 9:40:35 AM

I recently read the executive summary of FirstLight’s amended application to FERC for the relicensing of its power operations at Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls Dam (readily available online) and came away with lots of questions about the environmental mitigation steps they plan to take to help offset some of the environmental harm and degradation their operations have had — and continue to have — on the aquatic life of the Connecticut River.

On paper, many of their proposals sound promising: seasonal increases to minimum water flows and reductions in maximum water flows to support fish spawning; building a new fish passage at the Turners Falls Dam to give the American shad a fighting chance of continuing upriver to spawn instead of becoming stranded in the canal; and placing a barrier net across the mouths of the turbines that pull the Connecticut River uphill to the reservoir at Northfield Mountain to keep fish from being sucked through the killing blades of the turbines.

FirstLight includes data on how much spawning habitat will increase for particular species of fish with these proposed modulations to flow levels, compared to existing conditions, but makes no mention of how many fish are actually likely to be helped. Given that existing conditions are pretty dismal, how much of an increase in spawning habitat would be necessary to make a significant difference in the numbers of fish reaching their spawning grounds and successfully reproducing? Would the two-to three-fold increase proposed by FirstLight be sufficient? Or would it take a 10-fold increase? Or 100-fold?

And then there’s the matter of the shortnose sturgeon, whose only spawning site is at the Rock Dam below the Turners Falls Dam. Karl Meyer, the environmental journalist, has written often in these pages about the plight of these federally endangered fish, and rather than try to summarize what he has already so eloquently expressed on numerous occasions, I will only reiterate that the shortnose sturgeon are listed under the Endangered Species Act and yet their spawning site is not protected. How can that be?

Nothing has prevented FirstLight from providing sufficient water flows at the Rock Dam to enable the shortnose sturgeon to spawn successfully this year, or in previous years; they simply have felt no obligation or necessity to do so. While this failure raises obvious questions about the sincerity of FirstLight’s desire to truly behave as a good corporate citizen, it also raises equally troubling questions about the federal and state agencies charged with protecting this river and all of its aquatic life. Why are they not holding FirstLight accountable by advocating for minimum water flows during the spring spawning season? Yes, FirstLight would have to halt or greatly reduce their river draw downs for a window of time, which would result in temporary revenue decreases, but that seems a small price to pay for the continued privilege of operating a business in the middle of a national fish and wildlife refuge.

I call on Julie Crocker, branch chief for the Endangered Fish Recovery Unit of the National Marine Fisheries Service; Wendi Weber, director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Region 5; and Daniel McKiernan, director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries for their respective agencies to hold public forums this summer in towns along the Connecticut River to: (1) share their scientific opinions about whether FirstLight’s environmental mitigation proposals will afford real habitat restoration and protection or if they don’t go nearly far enough to make a meaningful difference to the survival of the fish who depend on this river to live and breed; and (2) share their plans for oversight to ensure FirstLight makes, and keeps, their promises should they be granted a new license by FERC.

I am very skeptical of FirstLight’s intentions with regards to cleaning up their act on the Connecticut River, particularly since they quantify their environmental mitigation efforts in terms of how much financial revenue they’ll lose by implementing them vs. the numbers of fish that may potentially be helped. It makes me question if they even recognize that this river is a shared natural resource that shapes the geography, history, beauty and enjoyment of this valley and not just a river of money. Before they are handed a new license by FERC to continue operating, there are many people, myself included, who would like an answer to that question.

Susan Olmsted lives in Greenfield and has a Master of Science Degree in Environmental Studies.

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