My Turn: FirstLight’s river pumping station down to secret confab

  • The Connecticut River as seen from the Coolidge Bridge. FILE PHOTO

Published: 3/26/2023 10:35:53 AM
Modified: 3/26/2023 10:35:42 AM

A secrecy-shrouded deadline looms for the future of the Connecticut River ecosystem here in Massachusetts and the three-state impacts implicit in relicensing the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project. After 51 years of unbridled disruption on the Connecticut, the future for Northfield Mountain could be decided at a March 28 secret negotiation session.

FirstLight Power, a subsidiary of Canadian transnational giant PSP Investments, is convening the horse-trading session under its company-required nondisclosure agreements.

This settlement meeting represents their last chance to get signed agreements with the likes of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries, Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife and Massachusetts Natural Heritage on a new Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licensing deal for Northfield. After 10 years of FERC relicensing studies and discussions, FERC finally gave FirstLight a deadline of March 31, 2023, to get signatures from those agencies.

As things stand, those signatures could well resanction Northfield Mountain’s carnage and disruption for future decades under conditions largely unchanged from the violent suction-and-surge parasitism of its Connecticut River gorging today.

For a plant whose 1968 operating license ended in 2018, its absurd critical decisions concerning miles of ravaged and reversed river flows, obliteration of hundreds of millions of fish and aquatic animals annually — and the public trust in our environmental enforcement agencies — will be decided in a secret negotiation.

Northfield’s lethal realities have never been publicly acknowledged or discussed by these same agencies that permitted the Pumped Storage Project to arise on New England’s Great River. Those conditions now get one final review in a meet-up concerning the power plant FirstLight registered into a Delaware tax shelter in 2018. The closed-door session pointedly excludes journalists and members of the public. And it’s the public’s misunderstanding of the workings of the Northfield Mountain station as a buy low/sell high, power-grid dependent machine — one run on an energy resale profit model — that’s been the hallmark of its unencumbered environmental destruction across half a century now.

According to FERC documents, the main component FirstLight has put forward to blunt the wholesale carnage of its massive daily suction is an untested, temporary net that will be deployed seasonally to protect just part of the life-cycles of just two fish — American shad and American eel. That’s out of the river’s two dozen species occurring in the ecosystem there.

Last month FirstLight Power CEO Alicia Barton wrote an opinion piece in Commonwealth Magazine targeted toward its metro readership where she described Northfield Mountain as “my company’s largest clean power plant — Northfield Mountain, in Western Mass. — is a zero-emissions pumped hyd ro facility.” In it, she never mentioned the Connecticut River once — nor that the Pumped Storage Project can only function by massively exploiting its flow daily and extinguishing a riot of aquatic life entrained in its suction-cycling turbines.

Nor did she mention Northfield is an electric appliance wholly dependent on, and plugged into, a regional grid that’s overwhelmingly fueled up on natural gas. Her plant is a grim gas guzzler that wastes 25% more energy than it ever reproduces in the peak-priced, second-hand megawatts ratepayers later get billed for.

Barton raised the specter of rolling blackouts and intoned that Northfield Mountain was largely responsible for saving New Englanders from blackouts in a power grid “near miss” emergency that frigid Christmas Eve afternoon. The reality was there had been market pricing and contracted delivery failures which caused rarely employed fuel oil from dual-use plants to fill in that day’s potential wattage gap.

Northfield’s afternoon input “for over two hours” was hardly the last-minute hero her piece alluded to. Rolling blackouts weren’t looming. FirstLight didn’t rescue us from a big bad holiday Grinch.

Barton’s commentary never would’ve flown had it been published locally. Western New Englanders would’ve seen through her “clean” and “zero-emissions” claims. It also would’ve left ISO-New England with more egg on its face. ISO-NE never made mention there was a looming power emergency to the Christmas Eve public. Blackouts weren’t being considered.

Commenting weeks later, ISO-NE noted that “consumer conservation wasn’t necessary.” The reality is the New England power grid has and can run without Northfield’s vicious, daily energy-squandering input. The 365 day-a-year ecosystem and energy parasite should not be relicensed. Its carnage should now ended.

Metro Boston may be Alicia Barton’s backyard and a place to market the FirstLight-goodness of an ecosystem-ravaging machine. But the Connecticut River Valley is what people here in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts call home. And in coming days, all eyes will be on the our federal and state environmental agencies charged with protecting our river and the futures of those who will come after us.

Living rivers and ecosystems are critical to the survival of this planet. It’s time the secrecy ended, and it’s time for them to do their jobs.

Karl Meyer has been a stakeholder, intervenor, and member of the Fish and Aquatics Studies Team in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing bid for Northfield Mountain since 2012. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and lives in Greenfield.


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