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My Turn: New England’s great river suffers without a watchdog

  • Manganese-laced slurry runs into the Connecticut River at the Rock Dam where shortnose sturgeon spawn, February 25. COURTESY KARL MEYER

  • STAFF ILLUSTRATION/ANDY CASTILLO

Published: 4/19/2020 12:44:36 PM

As the 50th anniversary of Earth Day approaches, dozens of amazing three-foot-long fish — remnants of a 100-million-year-old sturgeon species, are arriving at an ancient site in Turners Falls defined by a low, 200-million-year-old river escarpment. After over-wintering near Northampton, Hatfield, and Deerfield, those Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon will attempt spawning at a pool that’s been protecting eggs and developing young for thousands of years. That tenuous gathering occurs at a place not much bigger than the infield at Fenway Park.

But since late last summer, an incessant grim red soup has been entering the Rock Dam site where federally-endangered sturgeon spawn. Alarmed, on Oct. 9, 2019, I alerted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that FirstLight Power Resources’ failing riverbanks were eroding into that pool. This reach is also where last state-endangered yellow lamp mussel shell was documented. Though arguably the most critical aquatic habitat in the entire ecosystem, the riverbanks continue to buckle and leach there today.

FERC, mandated to enforce conditions and laws including the Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts, sprang into action 4½ months later. On Feb. 21, they ordered Canadian-owned and recently Delaware re-registered FirstLight to inspect and report on their own impacts. A foreign company would investigate itself on a U.S. river. FERC’s blasé order required a March 20 response — just weeks before the sturgeon converge.

Christopher Chaney of FERC’s Hydro Compliance Division directed FirstLight to supply “Photographs and the location(s) and an estimate of the extent(s) (e.g., height, width, depth) of the erosion in the bypassed reach identified in the October 9, 2019 complaint.” I’d sent photos detailing the “collapse of a long section of riverbank adjacent to the Rock Dam,” describing it as “25 feet in width and dropping down between 5-10 feet toward the river.” On March 20, FirstLight responded stating, “FirstLight cannot provide dimensions of the extent of the erosion because there is no evidence of any recent erosion in this natural river channel.” Mr. Chaney ignored my inclusion of ongoing maintenance failures here across a decade–narrowing FL’s self-investigation to circumstances right at the time of my complaint.

Nor was any physical investigation of the Turners Falls power canal — noted in my filing as the intruding water source likely activating the manganese slurry, required of FirstLight. Mg is known to bio-accumulate in freshwater mussels and crayfish — all plentiful at Rock Dam, and among the sturgeon’s chief food sources. Mg has been shown to bio-accumulate in eggs and adults in studies of Columbia River white sturgeon.

Take a camera to Rock Dam; you’ll likely come away thinking no one has exercised meaningful protective authority here in decades. Welcome to the nation’s only National Blueway; welcome to the heart of the Silvio Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge. The USGS Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, 250 yards from the Rock Dam, should be investigating. I cc’d my FERC letter to the Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, all responsible for these fish and the FERC relicensing of these sites. No one is ignorant.

As the four-state central artery of a US Fish & Wildlife Refuge, it’s unimaginable these longstanding grim conditions remain unchallenged. Yet, they are. Why? There is no credible watchdog here; there are no injunctions. Companies have little to fear.

Look at Eversource, a major funder of the Connecticut River Conservancy. Formerly, as WMECO and Northeast Utilities, they ran and profited from these facilities for generations. They also built this ecosystem’s ultimate grim reaper — the river-reversing, fish-eating Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, eight miles upstream. NMPS’s net-energy-loss and giant suck-and-surge operations have been a driver of the crippling conditions at Rock Dam since 1972. Eversource is massively wired into- and out-of, FirstLight’s Northfield and Turners facilities up to this day. Yet they’re the marquee sponsor of the Conservancy’s Source-to-Sea Cleanup and its PR. The nonprofit has never connected those grim corporate dots for the public. It’s a moneyed connection that goes back decades.

The Connecticut has forever needed an NGO stating, “We investigate; we go to court.” Smaller, younger northeast river NGOs boast their missions to “investigate, enforce, and litigate” — the Charles, Merrimac, the Delaware, Hudson; even the tiny Hackensack. All have from one to half a dozen lawyers on staff. After 68 years, the lawyer-less Conservancy recently changed its name, but again failed to adopt the single most critical mission mandate: litigation. Without a watchdog, New England’s Great River will remain a mere corporate investment refuge for generations to come. Isn’t it time for something new?

Karl Meyer lives in Greenfield. His “River Report” is heard on WHMP. He’s been on the Fish and Aquatics Study Team in the FERC relicensing for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls projects since 2013. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.


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