Legislators implore FirstLight to ‘do better’ following oil spill

By JULIAN MENDOZA

Staff Writer

Published: 03-23-2023 5:57 PM

TURNERS FALLS — Three local legislators are imploring FirstLight Hydro Generating Co. to “do better” after failing pistons at the Turners Falls dam allowed oil to leak into the Connecticut River earlier this month.

The leak, reported to FirstLight by the state Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) on March 9, involved an estimated 1 gallon of oil that was found to be leaking from two pistons. The incident comes slightly more than a year after a hydraulic leak at the Turners Falls dam released an estimated 300 gallons of oil into the river.

“After last year’s 300-gallon leak at FirstLight’s Turners Falls facility ... we spoke at length with FirstLight to ask what measures it was taking to both address the spill and to ensure its facility was in proper working order,” Sen. Jo Comerford, Rep. Susannah Whipps and Rep. Natalie Blais wrote in a joint statement released Wednesday. “But once again, we have another winter leak that threatens the health of the Connecticut River. And once again, FirstLight is promising vigilance. This time, and going forward, FirstLight must do better.”

The legislators called on FirstLight to “stop the current leak, clean it up, prevent its spread and do a full review of the facility to ensure its proper operation.” This work, they said, must be done “within the bounds of sound environmental practices.”

The legislators also stressed that FirstLight has allowed oil to leak into the river for three winters in a row due to malfunctioning equipment at its Turners Falls site.

“We recognize that this recent release follows a prior release last year,” FirstLight Communications Manager Claire Belanger wrote Thursday in response to the legislators’ statement. “Following that event last year, we instituted numerous solutions to prevent future releases at every piston on each bascule gate, including implementing work on areas of the facility that had never shown any evidence of leakage to ensure we would be ahead of any further issues. Unfortunately, we did not succeed, and we take responsibility for this.”

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The legislators noted they have been in communication with MassDEP, which is “actively monitoring and engaging in the situation.” According to spokesperson Brittany Murphy, FirstLight has installed preventative materials to mitigate ongoing leakage until environmental conditions allow for a more permanent resolution.

“At our most recent inspection, the release appeared contained, and no migration of oil was observed outside of the immediate containment area,” Catherine Skiba, deputy regional director at the Bureau of Administrative Service for MassDEP’s Western Regional Office, wrote in a statement on Monday. “FirstLight has engaged a licensed site professional to implement the required response actions necessary to contain and repair the leak.”

The affected pistons — Piston 3 on the second bascule gate and Piston 5 on the third bascule gate — are separate from the pistons involved in last year’s leak, which were Pistons 7 and 8 below the fourth bascule gate. The cause of the leak is currently unknown, Belanger said, noting that further investigation — and permanent remediation — cannot be executed until ice and snow clears enough for personnel to safely access the affected pistons.

“FirstLight prides ourselves on being a company that delivers environmentally beneficial energy products to the region and being responsible stewards of the river ecosystems in which our facilities operate,” Belanger said Thursday, acknowledging that “any release of oil to the river is unacceptable.

“We are committed to implementing a permanent solution to ensure these conditions do not recur, and we are taking immediate action to undertake that work as soon as we can,” Belanger added.

Skiba noted that a “Notice of Responsibility has been issued to FirstLight,” but that “MassDEP cannot comment on potential or pending enforcement actions.” Once additional information becomes available, she said, it will be posted on MassDEP’s data portal under release tracking number (RTN) 1-0021749 at bit.ly/3JCstaU.

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-930-4231 or jmendoza@recorder.com.

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