On September 29, 2021

Sending an SOS for the Connecticut River

By Karl Meyer

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Karl Meyer of Greenfield, Mass., 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.  

No river should die in the dark, certainly not the Connecticut — 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 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission of their desire to return to closed-door negotiations with FirstLight Power on the massive impacts of their Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station and Turner’s Falls hydro projects.

The U.S. 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, the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station has turned miles of river into a chaos of brutal surges and reversed flows — forcing it from its natural course and killing hundreds 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 — impacting both Vermont and New Hampshire spawning runs, in the landmark 1872 Supreme Court decision of 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, the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station’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 the Northfield Mountain station 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 the 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.

Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station is a wildly- wasteful energy consumer — one that’s never produced a watt of its own virgin power. It’s fully dependent on swallowing 1/3 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 of Massachusetts — without killing — for that same year. Northfield Mountain’s “stored” power amounts to a mere seven hours of intermittent, one-shot, full-stop electricity — not enough for a workday. 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 Canadian venture capital giant PSP Investments purchased FirstLight-branded Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station and Turners Falls hydro projects in the midst of this relicensing. PSP then quickly reregistered them out of New England into a series of Delaware limited liability company tax shelters in 2018.

FirstLight is now trumpeting little $1,000 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 nongovernment organizations 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 million to $200 million-plus.

In February, Len Greene, the FirstLight director of government affairs, 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 department 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 Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station — 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 and all of New England a living river. But the time now is critical. On Saturday, Sept. 18, I was on the Turner’s Falls Bridge above the Connecticut from 11 a.m. to noon, standing out for a living ecosystem.

There’s room for everyone to join in such protests. Don’t let our river die in the dark.

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