My Turn: Power of a water quality certificate

  • Turners Fall Dam COURTESY FIRSTLIGHT POWER

Published: 1/27/2022 2:39:56 PM
Modified: 1/27/2022 2:38:38 PM

Regarding FirstLight’s application for relicensing the Northfield Pumped Storage and Turners Falls Hydroelectric facilities, there continues to be much confusion about the relationship of the federal licensing agent, the FERC, and the power of the Water Quality Certificate issued by Massachusetts under section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act. For some people, analogies are helpful. For others they just confuse things more. If you are in the first camp, try reading this.

Pretend that to get a driver’s license, you have to apply to the federal government. The feds have rules that say you have to drive at safe speeds, use safety precautions, and follow the state regulations. So after you apply to the feds for your driver’s license, you also apply to Massachusetts, saying you know your old license said you could drive 80 mph any time, but now you are only asking to drive 70 everywhere. The state sits down to have a chat with you and says you ran over a bunch of schoolchildren on that old license, and now they want you to drive no more than 55 mph anywhere, and never over 20 mph in a school zone. Also wear your seatbelt all the time (we know they weren’t invented when you got your last license), and within three months take a class about safe interactions with bicycles on the road.

You respond, “20 mph? Even at night? I’m paid to get places quickly. What do bicycles have to do with me?” Negotiations ensue.

The state does not tell you that if you feel that way you can’t have a license. They issue written “conditions” to your driver’s license saying never drive over 55 mph, never over 25 mph in a school zone during school hours, always wear your seatbelt, and take a bicycle safety course within 18 months. They list those conditions to you and to the feds. The feds then issue your driver’s license with every one of those conditions, just like the state said, even the bicycle part that seems tangential. If you don’t like it, you may take the state to court. If you get the license then don’t meet the conditions, expect to be pulled over, and for penalties to be imposed.

Now back to the real relicensing process. FirstLight has applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, (FERC) for a license to operate the hydro facilities. Then, like mediation in a divorce (switching analogies, sorry) FirstLight and some key players, including some state agencies, agreed to pause to see if they could improve the terms of the application. These are the settlement talks you have probably heard of, sometimes being called “secret meetings”. They are secret because, like in a divorce, if one party says “OK, you can keep the house if I get sole custody of the kids,” and the other party refuses, you can’t go back to the judge and say “well, they said could keep the house.”

It’s not a deal until it is all a deal. The settlement talks should conclude with a better application. Unless a miracle occurs, it will not conclude with a final deal, especially as the state Department of Environmental Protection has stated they are not going to sign anything before the public process has even begun.

Next step: FirstLight and FERC will say they are ready to get going again, and FirstLight will submit their “401” application to the state, maybe by summer? When that happens, the state has only 12 months to get public input, review the application, then write and issue the Water Quality Certificate with all the detailed conditions that FirstLight must meet. If the state doesn’t meet the deadline, or declines to write a Water Quality Certificate, then the FERC proceeds without it, and state has lost its chance for most input.

There is no fixed process for hearings or public input. One notice in the paper and 20 days to respond in writing is legal and not unprecedented. That’s not nearly enough for a 50-year license.

At Greening Greenfield’s “Save the Connecticut River” event on Jan 24, we were all encouraged to write DEP and EEA immediately to urge robust public hearings. “Robust” means enough opportunity for everyone to be heard and enough widespread public notice that folks know when and how to speak up. Send copies to everyone. Details, addresses, and background are on the Greening Greenfield website at GreeningGreenfieldMA.org. Just click on the photo of the River.

Peg Hall is a five-year Greenfield resident who remembers driving from Greenfield to Turners Falls for the first time over what she thought was a gully with rocks and puddles, then some form of the channelized river.


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