My Turn: Stand up for New England’s river

  • The view from the summit of Mt. Sugarloaf State Reservation of the Connecticut River Valley. FILE PHOTO/CHELI MENNELLA

Published: 9/13/2021 2:39:06 PM

No river should die in the dark, certainly not the Connecticut — western New England’s ocean lifeline and central artery. But after nine years of participating and intervening in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s hydro relicensing in Massachusetts, I fear that may happen.

In August the Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife, plus the Department of Environmental Protection, informed FERC of their desire to return to closed-door negotiations with FirstLight Power on the massive impacts of their Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station (NMPS) and Turners Falls hydro projects. The US Fish & Wildlife Service endorsed those confidentiality-shrouded talks —asking FERC to delay pending licensing rulings while that horse trading occurs.

Daily for half a century NMPS has turned miles of river into a chaos of brutal surges and reversed flows — forcing it from its natural course and killing 100s of millions of fish and aquatic animals annually. It fails to meet the definition of a river in Massachusetts.

Under conditions present for up to four months a year Northfield’s peak-suctioning actually halts; then reverses the Connecticut’s flow for over 3 miles downstream for hours. It’s a heart attack, followed by an ecosystem stroke.

Northfield’s use flies in the face of federal and state Clean Water Act, Rivers and Harbors Act and wetlands protection standards. It has never complied with safe migratory fish passage mandates in the landmark 1872 Supreme Court decision Holyoke Company v. Lyman.

After nine years the public has lost any through-line understanding of a complex process ultimately determining if a living river has any future in New England. Since 1972, NMPS’s daily siphoning has killed everything sucked in. Its 15,000 cubic feet per second suction ensures no adult or juvenile fish or egg pulled through its vortex survives. Some 24 fish species are exposed to that vacuum. A season’s death toll for juvenile shad alone can reach 2 million, plus another 10 million eggs and larvae obliterated.

Northfield’s vastly-inefficient daily use is abetted and massively bankrolled by ISO-New England — now as part of a FERC process skewed to profligate private energy production. Both institutions are full-on corporate enablers, patently ignoring ecosystems, rivers and conservation in favor of unbridled electricity sales, climate destruction and waste.

ISO has long-endorsed keeping NMPS doing its daily killing — overwhelmingly for its few hours of rarely-needed emergency power. That single-use dense power capability was once briefly used to restart their vulnerable, still-centralized East Coast grid in the Blackout of 2003. Today instead of emergency use, it continues killing daily — an ecosystem betrayed for ISO’s grim insurance policy.

NMPS is a wildly-wasteful energy consumer — one that’s never produced a watt of its own virgin power. It’s fully dependent on swallowing one-third more grid juice than the recycled electricity it later regurgitates at daily peak prices.

FirstLight’s PR has stated Northfield sends out enough electricity to power 1.3 million average homes for a year. Unacknowledged is they’ve already consumed the energy of nearly 2 million (1.97) homes sucking the Connecticut up to their giant reservoir — before turning out even a light bulb’s worth of juice.

That massive waste could power all the housing units in metro-Boston (Suffolk County), plus those in Franklin County and all but 10,000 homes in Hampshire County — without killing, for that same year.NMPS’s “stored” power amounts to a mere 7 hours of intermittent, one-shot, full-stop electricity — not enough for a work day. After that it’s dead in the water. Instead of a living lifeline, a half-dead Connecticut is the daily handmaid of private industry.

Here are some newer developments in this relicensing history. In 2016, the $20 billion-dollar Canadian venture capital giant PSP Investments purchased FirstLight-branded NMPS and Turners Falls hydro projects in the midst of this relicensing. PSP then quickly re-registered them out of New England into a series of Delaware limited liability company tax shelters in 2018.

FL is now trumpeting little $1,000 dollar competitive grants for impoverished school systems in Massachusetts — from their local “clean” energy provider. They want to be seen as a generous benefactor, giving cash handouts to struggling NGOs and, recently, offering modest sums in self-dubbed “environmental justice grants” to the state’s poorest county. This is from a tax sheltered, foreign-owned outfit, with publicly-shielded annual sales that some estimate at $100-$200 million plus.

In February FirstLight Director of Government Affairs Len Greene sent the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources a formal wish list — lobbying for policy changes in future long-term contracts for distant wind farms to be built off Martha’s Vineyard. FirstLight wanted new DOER policy to essentially subsidize markets and require the production and sale of low-cost/no-cost, wind-generated megawatts to distant storage outfits — ones exactly like NMPS, during times of plentiful electricity supply when turbines would not otherwise generate. Who wouldn’t want a killer cash cow, plus decades of milk practically free?

Massachusetts has long-owed Vermont, New Hampshire — all of New England, a living river. But the time now is critical. On Saturday, Sept. 18 I’ll be on the Turners Falls Bridge above the Connecticut from 11 a.m. to noon — standing out for a living ecosystem. There’s room for everyone. Don’t let our river die in the dark.

Karl Meyer lives in Greenfield. He’s been a member of the Fish and Aquatics Studies Team in this FERC relicensing process since 2012. He did not sign a confidentiality agreement with FirstLight. Meyer is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.


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