Towns, local groups get legal standing in FirstLight relicensing

  • 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: 7/15/2019 9:40:08 PM

Towns on the Connecticut River, wary of a proposed corporate restructuring of the FirstLight Hydro Generating Co., have gained some legal ground to potentially challenge the plan.

The towns of Montague, Northfield and Gill, along with several other organizations, have been officially recognized by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) as “intervenors,” giving them the legal standing to appeal whatever decision FERC makes regarding FirstLight’s restructuring.

FirstLight operates three power-generating facilities on the Connecticut River: two hydro-electric facilities in Montague, and a water-pump machine at Northfield Mountain.

The three facilities are now operated as a single company. But FirstLight is attempting to split itself into two limited-liability companies: one in Montague and one in Northfield, both of which would be owned by a single parent company.

Opposing this idea are local town governments, advocacy groups and the Franklin County Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG). They argue that the corporate restructuring, by defining the two locations as separate entities, would obscure the fact that their operations affect one another, and would effectively limit the amount of money the power company would be required to spend on river protection and maintenance.

“We think of them as a real package deal,” said Andrea Donlon, a steward for the Connecticut River Conservancy. “Their operations affect each other, and therefore their profits would be linked to each other.”

The backdrop of this is: FirstLight is in the midst of a multi-year process of renewing its license with FERC.

In December, as part of the relicensing, FirstLight requested that FERC recognize its two Franklin County facilities as two separate power companies. The towns of Northfield, Montague and Gill wrote to FERC to protest the request, as did several similarly concerned local organizations including FRCOG, the Connecticut River Conservancy and the Nolumbeka Project.

In January and February, those concerned parties requested that FERC recognize them as “intervenors,” which would give them the legal standing to appeal FERC’s eventual decision on FirstLight’s restructuring.

In FRCOG’s letter to FERC, Executive Committee Chairman Jay DiPucchio wrote that FirstLight is restructuring to limit the amount of money it will likely have to pay for river protection under a renewed license from FERC, and that the move would keep Northfield Mountain from having to pay for river health.

The Montague Selectboard wrote that FERC’s 30-day comment period for FirstLight’s proposal was too short, especially considering the then-ongoing government shutdown, and that 90 days would be more reasonable.

FirstLight tried to quell concerns. Writing to the Montague Selectboard, company President John Shue called the proposed restructuring “purely a corporate ‘paper transaction’” to suit the two facilities’ different business models.

FirstLight asked FERC to reject all the intervention requests on the grounds that the towns and local groups do not have a real concern in the proceedings, according to a letter from the FERC Deputy Secretary Nathaniel Davis.

FERC disagreed and granted the intervention requests, arguing that the towns and groups do have an interest in FirstLight’s proposed restructuring because they have an interest in the potential impact on the Connecticut River.

FERC officially granted the interventions on July 1. The intervening parties are:

■Town of Montague

■Town of Northfield

■Town of Gill

■Franklin Regional Council of Governments

■Connecticut River Conservancy

■Elnu Tribe of Abenaki

■American Whitewater

■Appalachian Mountain Club

■New England FLOW

■The Nature Conservancy

■Karl Meyer (a Greenfield-based environmental writer)

Reach Max Marcus at
mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.




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