FirstLight settlement draws mixed response


Staff Writer

Published: 04-03-2023 3:29 PM

TURNERS FALLS — In what the company says is a “huge win for the environment,” FirstLight Hydro Generating Co. is promising to spend $152 million on upgrades at its three facilities on the Connecticut River as part of its new 50-year licensee renewal to operate.

With Friday marking the deadline, FirstLight has filed its Flows and Fish Passage Settlement Agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

FirstLight, which previously submitted its amended license application to FERC for a new 50-year license to operate, has three facilities up for relicensing. Those facilities — the hydro-pump facility at Northfield Mountain and two hydroelectric dams in Turners Falls — have been criticized by environmental advocacy groups for their impact on fish, the Connecticut River and the surrounding environment.

In a statement, FirstLight said the commitments made in this settlement agreement that include direct investments in environmental protection will reduce future revenue for the company by more than $350 million over the course of a new, 50-year license that is adjusted for inflation.

“This agreement is a huge win for the environment by committing FirstLight to groundbreaking new investments to support and enhance the Connecticut River while protecting the critical role of these facilities in delivering electric system reliability and advancing the decarbonization of the electric grid in New England to combat the existential threat to our environment and our communities posed by climate change,” FirstLight’s Chief Operating Officer Justin Trudell said in a statement.

As part of the agreement, a key component of the company’s license application, FirstLight intends to spend $152 million on environmental protection upgrades at its facilities. These include the construction of a new fish lift at the Turners Falls dam; upstream passage facilities designed specifically for the American eel; the installation of a seasonal barrier net to allow safe passage for juvenile American shad and adult silver-phase American eel; construction of a plunge pool below the Turners Falls dam; intake protection at two dams; funding for conservation of the cobblestone tiger beetle; and funding for habitat improvement projects for American shad and river herring.

These projects are set to take place in the decade after FirstLight’s licensing is to be finalized.

The major differences between this licensing agreement and the agreement FirstLight received 50 years ago, according to FirstLight Communications Manager Claire Belanger, are the flow regime changes that will protect endangered species and the addition of new fish passage facilities.

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“Some of what is good here is the increase in flows, especially during fish migration that will offer better habitat and better migration,” said Kelsey Wentling, river steward at the Greenfield-based Connecticut River Conservancy.

There are nine conservation and outdoor recreation agencies that signed the settlement. These include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, American Whitewater, Appalachian Mountain Club, Crab Apple Whitewater Inc., New England Flow and Zoar Outdoor. Ten stakeholders were involved in the negotiations, and one organization did not sign the settlement.

Wentling explained that the Connecticut River Conservancy decided not to sign, citing issues with the timeline for the construction of the new environmental protections and the proposed barrier net at the Northfield facility.

Similarly, Greenfield environmental activist Karl Meyer said he was disappointed that FirstLight is protecting only two species at certain life cycles at the Northfield hydro-pump storage station.

“What is heartbreaking is that we are still going to have a river where everything that enters Northfield Mountain dies,” he said.

Other local officials are concerned about the lack of other specific agreements submitted by FirstLight. The one filed Friday pertains to fish and river flows, but people were also hoping for cultural resources and recreation components.

“At this point, I want to remain positive and optimistic in my remarks relative to seeing additional elements of the settlement come forward,” said Montague Town Administrator Steve Ellis. “I say that with the understanding that today was the deadline for filing an agreement to FERC; there may still be a path forward.”

The Nolumbeka Project, an Indigenous preservation nonprofit, submitted a public document this week to FERC outlining concerns that FirstLight has not yet created a cultural resources settlement.

“We remain committed to reaching a comprehensive settlement, so we will continue our negotiations with partners in an effort to come to an agreement on outstanding issues,” Belanger wrote in a statement, adding that FirstLight is unable to commit to a timeline at the moment.