Guest columnist Karl Meyer: Justice for New England’s river

  • Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project upper reservoir. file photo

Published: 2/21/2022 4:00:30 PM
Modified: 2/21/2022 4:00:10 PM

After 50 years, the chance for federal and state agencies to undo the mistake leaving a 410-mile-long river ecosystem broken in a three-state reach rests with them in closed-door federal license negotiations with FirstLight Power.

Since 1972 the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station has scrambled 20 miles of the Connecticut River from Massachusetts into Vermont and New Hampshire. Now, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, National Marine Fisheries Service and Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife have a final chance to renew a living river in Massachusetts — one crippled by Northfield Mountain’s impacts. Its brutal suck-and-surge flow reversals and annual obliteration of hundreds of millions of fish and aquatic animals comprise the stakes here.

Those agencies are vested with “conditioning authority” to decide if this 50-year-old plant qualifies under environmental law to be granted a new license. The Massachusetts leaders entrusted with the river’s protection include: Wendi Weber, USFWS Region 5 director; Martin Suuberg, commissioner of the Massachusetts DEP; Mark Tisa, director of Massachusetts DFW; and Julie Crocker, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ESA fish, ecosystems and energy branch chief.

After five grim decades, any new license must comply with 150-year-old migratory fish passage laws and 20th century mandates of the Clean Water Act, Rivers and Harbors Act and Endangered Species Act.

The Connecticut River, between the Vernon, Vermont, dam and the Turners Falls Dam in Massachusetts has been this ecosystem’s graveyard since 1972. It’s where age-old downstream flows are turned inside out and obliterated. Sixty-five miles above the tide’s reach at Hartford, this ancient freshwater corridor is mangled and reversed daily. Annually, Northfield suction kills unfathomable numbers of migratory and resident fish. It’s a river’s idea of hell.

Built to run on massively overproduced nuclear megawatts from long-closed Vermont Yankee, Northfield Mountain Pumping Station’s sucking tug on currents reaches upstream to the base of the Vernon Dam, 15 miles away. Downstream its suction pull of 15,000 cubic feet per second flows to a stop; then yanks them backward — often for miles, in hourslong gulps. Reversed flows can extend 3 miles or more across the river’s yearly cycle — from Riverview picnic area past the French King Bridge, then 2 miles further to Turners Falls Industrial Park. Its peak generating flushes also force flows back upriver, by as much as 2 miles toward Vermont and New Hampshire.

This net power loss machine consumes one-third more megawatts than it spits out for resale. Today that negative output is largely fueled on climate-scorching natural gas. The pumping station’s brutality was built on a WMECO/Northeast Utilities (today’s Eversource) buy-low/sell-high, anti-gravity energy scheme. The Federal Power Commission (today’s FERC) granted their currently-extended antique license — signed by the public agencies in extended non-disclosure-agreement-shrouded negotiations with FirstLight.

Canadian venture capital giant PSP Investments owns FirstLight. In 2018 they reregistered Northfield into a Delaware tax shelter.

In 2010, the Northfield Mountain Pumping Station broke down, attempting to disgorge its reservoir sludge. From May 1 to early November it sat choked and offline, sanctioned by the EPA for massive river dumping in flagrant violation of the Clean Water Act. Despite assertions of its necessity for daily grid operation, no one had to live by candlelight. Its half-year absence went largely unnoticed, save for the river’s shad migrating toward Vermont and New Hampshire. Their upriver passage at Turners Falls Dam skyrocketed 800% above decade averages in the newly-calm flows past the pumping station and down through Turners Falls.

Staggering numbers of eggs, larvae and young of 24 species are killed by the Northfield station yearly. Adults perish as well. One study for federal trust American shad estimated some 2.7 million juveniles and 10 millions eggs and larvae obliterated in a season. Peak shad spawning occurs at a river temperature of 65F, transpiring there around the last week of May. For the next three-and-half months the tiny developing life forms are defenseless in encounters with Northfield’s massive two-directional suction. As remedy, FirstLight proposes deploying a temporary “barrier net” with ¾-inch mesh near the tunnel’s mouth from August to November. For juvenile out-migrating shad, often just ½-inch around in mid-September, it’s a license to kill. It’s flimsy window-dressing for all the species devoured in the 50-year feeding frenzy here.

Massachusetts is where a river ecosystem dies. There is no “Conte” fish refuge here; no “National Blueway.” Here, deadened and deadly, the Connecticut remains the “nation’s best landscaped sewer.” Since December, over 80 citizens have filed testimony with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission demanding Northfield be denied a new license to kill. Will our public agencies stand with them?

Karl Meyer lives in Greenfield. He’s been a stakeholder, intervener and a Fish and Aquatics Studies Team volunteer in this FERC licensing process since 2012. Meyer is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.
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