My Turn: Sucking the life out of New England’s Great River

Fog rolls over the Connecticut River, looking south from Mount Sugarloaf.

Fog rolls over the Connecticut River, looking south from Mount Sugarloaf. FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By KARL MEYER

Published: 02-09-2024 8:53 PM

I’m currently a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) recognized “intervener” requesting denial of a new operating license for FirstLight Power’s Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project. Since 1973, its pumping has waged a grim war on the Connecticut River’s fish and flows in the 20-mile reach between the Vernon and Turners Falls dams in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, to flush and fill a giant reservoir. To agree to any new license for that plant would deny the life of New England’s Great River. I won’t do it.

PSP Investments, a $250 billion global outfit, owns FirstLight Power. PSP is literally an arm of the Canadian government. In a May 11, 2023 FERC filing, FirstLight revealed Northfield’s astonishing inefficiency in regenerating electricity, stating “it takes 34% more energy to pump than to generate.”

Other filings document the miles of river it literally suctions backward and regularly plows upstream via flushing surges. That suction results in near 100% mortality for hundreds of millions of juvenile and adult fish, eggs, and larvae annually. Lifeless water is later spewed back out to recreate resale electricity at peak prices. With fracked gas powering nearly 60% of the grid, the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project is both a climate and ecosystem killer.

Greenwashing of Northfield Mountain is common. Former FirstLight CEO Alicia Barton’s commentary from last February’s CommonWealth Magazine is a case in point. She characterized it as a “zero emission” “clean” energy plant, hyping its supposed role rescuing us from grid blackouts that weren’t actually looming in a 2023 Christmas Eve cold snap (commonwealthbeacon.org/energy/clean-energy-generators-are-already-proving-their-worth/). I later countered her assertions: commonwealthbeacon.org/opinion/the-dirty-truth-of-northfield-mountains-clean-energy/.

Upon publication, FirstLight’s PR firm complained to the editor, Bruce Mohl. “I stand by my words,” I told him. No quibbling could change the truth. Unsurprisingly, FirstLight did not correct Northfield’s staggering waste upward to its full 34% at the time.

This Christmas eve there was no Northfield. It shut down in late summer and sat idle on Nov. 17 when FirstLight announced Barton’s departure. Unnoticed, it remained offline right through Thanksgiving, Christmas, and into the new year. The lights stayed on; the river-killing stopped — a boatload of grid energy was saved.

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Ms. Barton has long advocated marrying Northfield’s river-crippling storage to proposed ocean wind generation — a grimly wasteful electricity round-trip for regeneration here, only to send it back to gluttonous coastal cities while the big cash rolls to Canada. After three years at FirstLight, Barton is now CEO for Vineyard Offshore, a new subsidiary of Copenhagen Offshore Partners.

For decades, state and federal officials and the Connecticut River Watershed Council where I once worked have avoided public acknowledgment of the Connecticut River’s miles literally reversed and the massive carnage and waste — all contrary to the 1972 Clean Water Act’s protection of “the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

On March 17, 2023, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries, Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife – plus the Nature Conservancy and American Rivers — signed a FirstLight relicense “settlement” Agreement in Principle sent to FERC. All pledged to support and defend FirstLight’s terms for a new 50-year license — one continuing the reversed Connecticut’s daily slaughter, against Clean Water Act challenges.

All are complicit in the reign of this river’s serial killer. Future generations should not be shackled to a crippled river and hungry net-loss machine strangling their ecosystem. Where’s the lawyer with the injunction, saying, “This ends here?”

Their agreement included FirstLight’s absurdly thin monetary proposal for pillaging the public’s river. Across 50 years they’d spend less than a single (2019) year’s total of Northfield’s reported sales of $159 million on fish passage and quelling a small corner of its monstrous river strangling. Most of the spending won’t occur until 2035.

Left to run on a license that expired in 2018, FirstLight has been spending their hundreds of millions realized here purchasing huge offshore ocean leases in New York, opening a $97 milllion corporate lending arm, and buying up and rebranding traditional hydropower operations in western Pennsylvania, Quebec and Ontario.

I’ve written about the crippled Connecticut River for over a quarter-century, attending scores of meetings with agency and NGO professionals. Perhaps it’s policy that has kept them from speaking out on Northfield’s destruction, but in a democracy, they’re entitled.

I know of only one who did. Dr. Alex Haro, with over 30 years of Connecticut River migratory fisheries expertise at the federal Conte Fish Lab, sent formal comments to FERC “as a private citizen.” In them he describes Northfield Mountain’s deadly impacts on fish and the river — and the inadequate protections on offer. He concludes if its destruction and direct connection to the river can’t be largely ended, other means of regional energy storage should be considered.

To read Alex Haro’s formal comments, go to www.ferc.gov, then to e-Library; then “documents and filings.” In the box for “Enter docket number,” enter “P-2485” exactly. In the “Select date range” boxes” labeled “From” and “To” enter dates 05/08/2023 and 05/09/2023, respectively. Haro’s “Comments” link appears at the page bottom. My “Notice of Intervention” documents can be accessed at the top. They’re unsurprisingly similar. Sadly, time is running short for New England’s Great River.

Karl Meyer lives in Greenfield. He’s been on the Fish and Aquatics Studies Team in the FERC relicensing application for Northfield Mountain since 2012. He’s a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.