Guest Columnist Karl Meyer: Last light for New England’s Great River?

  • KARL MEYER KARL MEYER

Published: 12/21/2021 4:30:53 PM
Modified: 12/21/2021 4:30:38 PM

After 49 years the sole chance to end the massive energy waste, unquantifiable loss of aquatic life and full-stop ecosystem disruption wrought by the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station on the Connecticut River is here. Whether it ends — in the name of protecting future generations, remains in the hands of key federal agencies involved since 2012 in relicensing studies of Northfield’s deadly anti-gravity pumping since 1972.

In 1872 the U.S. Supreme Court mandated all migratory must have safe up and downstream passage on all rivers. Since 1967 the published goals on the Connecticut River for today’s U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife have been to restore passage for migratory American shad, blueback herring and other species. Specifically that formal cooperative agreement shared with four New England states required them “to provide the public with high quality sport fishing opportunities in a highly-urbanized area, as well as to provide for the long-term needs of the population for seafood.” Our river’s fish were once again to feed us. 

They failed miserably — instead creating a massive salmon farming operation in the name of a fish extinct here since 1809. Meanwhile, unchallenged by either the agencies or a river group here since 1952, the massive suction of Northfield obliterated 100s of millions of fish and aquatic animals annually. Today, despite 69 years of boasting from the Connecticut River Watershed Council/Conservancy, the Connecticut remains the deadliest ‘Nation’s best landscaped sewer’ in Massachusetts.    

FirstLight marked an anniversary here Dec. 20. That’s the day in 2018 its parent-owner, Canada’s PSP Investments, quietly reregistered their Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls hydro units into Delaware tax shelters. How neighborly. FirstLight didn’t notify the US Fish & Wildlife Service or National Marine Fisheries Service of their move — both having participated with plant operators since 2012 in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing studies on their river impacts. Both agencies were right on the eve of a federal shutdown lasting 35 days. After FirstLight failed to notify Massachusetts Fish & Wildlife and Massachusetts DEP, I sounded the alarm a week later — finding their dodgy move in the pages of the Federal Register.

Since walking away from state tax levies where its assets are physically located, FirstLight’s PR team has been in overdrive — cultivating an image as a generous, concerned, community-based outfit. They look like a new not-for-profit. This foreign-based corporation with annual sales estimated somewhere in the $100s of millions, has been sprinkling well-placed cash gifts and doling out strategic grants while reaping stellar publicity.

Tax payments support communities. But here clever prizes have been dangled before the public in school and community “environmental and justice” grants. The tactic is nearly identical to ones private schools use to avoid town coffer obligations for wear-and-tear on a publicly-funded infrastructure. Lacking commitment, “payments in lieu of taxes” buy great PR while actually being exquisite green-washing. Among recent recipients of FirstLight-style philanthropy are Franklin County schools, the Nolumbeka Project, Community Action of Franklin and Hampshire Counties, plus cash and a strategically placed free hot cider stand on the route of Monte’s March. That garnered FirstLight front page notice in the paper.

After skulking off to Delaware, FirstLight’s secrecy still abounds in their relicensing bid for Northfield. Final closed-door talks with federal and state fish agencies are nearing their end this month to re-sanction the grimmest electric appliance ever installed on our river. Just like an electric toilet, Northfield squanders massive amounts of grid electricity to literally pull a river backward and uphill — flushing it and all its fish back out, dead, while reselling the secondhand juice as twice-produced watts to distant markets at peak prices.

But now the ultimate secret community loss could be our federal and state agencies’ final failure to protect one of this planet’s ecosystems for future generations. New England’s river, and those who must depend on it in the future, now face a full century of peril if FirstLight controls 23 of its critical miles of for decades. They want feed off a Connecticut that should be nourishing us.

Citizens can still get on the public record before any grim deal is signed. Go to: www.ferc.gov; then to “Documents and Filings”; then click on the “Quick Links” tab for FERC Online on the right; and then to “eComment” on the page that opens. Follow directions for “Hydroelectric License/Re-license Proceedings (P - Project Number),” and use Northfield’s FERC project number, P-2485, to enter your comments.

Greenfield journalist Karl Meyer has been a participating stakeholder and intervener in these Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licensing proceedings since 2012.

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