Municipal officials, residents air concerns with FirstLight at MassDEP hearing

The calm waters of the Connecticut River reflect the sky before plummeting onto the rocks below the Turners Falls dam.

The calm waters of the Connecticut River reflect the sky before plummeting onto the rocks below the Turners Falls dam. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By ANTHONY CAMMALLERI

Staff Writer

Published: 05-30-2024 5:34 PM

Modified: 05-30-2024 5:39 PM


TURNERS FALLS — As FirstLight Hydro Generating Co. advances its decade-long license renewal to continue operating its facilities on the Connecticut River, municipal officials and residents voiced concerns over its potential environmental impacts to the state Department of Environmental Protection during a hearing Wednesday.

FirstLight has operated the Turners Falls dams and Northfield hydro-pump facility under a temporary license since 2018 and is currently seeking a 50-year license renewal through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The company has faced criticism from environmental advocacy groups for the facilities’ impact on fish, the Connecticut River and the surrounding environment.

In a virtually held public hearing, members of the public shared their concerns about erosion and damage to aquatic ecosystems and areas of historical significance in FirstLight’s application for a water quality certification through MassDEP. The certification is required as part of FirstLight’s pending application with FERC.

After Pamela Harvey, an environmental lawyer, outlined the state law-mandated surface water quality standards, noting aquatic life, degradation and water flow levels as factors for consideration in the study, Montague Town Administrator Steve Ellis and Gill Town Administrator Ray Purington commented on FirstLight and its impact in their communities.

Ellis expressed concern with the broad water elevation levels described in FirstLight’s application, which range from 176 feet to 185 feet, a height that he said “approaches the height” of the dam’s gates. Ellis described the Turner Falls impoundment as being used as a “sacrifice zone” for the rest of the company’s projects.

“In so many ways, this community’s entire existence — economic, traditional, cultural — has been defined by the Connecticut River, which flows right through our downtown,” Ellis said. “We understand and appreciate that there are more pristine riverine environments to the north and to the south of this area, but we view this as having equal standing from the standpoint of being protected land and protected water for the purposes of the water quality assessment.”

Noting that a 176-foot water elevation is “extraordinarily low” and might cause both erosion and “possibly irreparable harm” to aquatic life, Ellis requested that MassDEP recommend a more narrow water elevation range, with a minimum of 179 feet.

Purington also voiced his concerns with river level fluctuations, noting that erosion and siltation — eroded sand and soil washing into the riverflow — have resulted in damage to protected land and harm to aquatic life in the time FirstLight has operated on the Connecticut River under its current license.

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“Landowners have watched it flood their shoreline, up to 30 feet or more in some places, including protected farmland, eroded and washed away down river. Some of the eroded soils eventually settle out in various inlets and coves, especially the 160-acre Barton Cove located just above the Turners Falls dam,” Purington said. “Resulting siltation impairs the recreational use of the river for boating and fishing and makes it easier for aquatic invasive species to take hold.”

Although FirstLight has been required to conduct erosion mitigation efforts under its current license, Purington said these effort have been “largely unsuccessful,” noting that the company’s 2009 Riverbank Stabilization project has not received a certificate of compliance from the Gill Conservation Commission.

“FirstLight has been made aware of this deficiency multiple times over many years and has yet to respond or take action,” he said. “Operations that have been proposed for the new license will not resolve the erosion problems they cause.”

Northfield resident Joe Graveline, of Cherokee and Abenaki descent, serves as a senior advisor for the Nolumbeka Project, a Greenfield-based nonprofit that aims to preserve Native American culture and history. He said his group owns a 64-acre parcel of land at the foot of the dam and argued that its alterations due to the river’s flow not only pose a threat to the environment, but to his culture.

Graveline said that for a significant portion of the year, raising the water’s temperature through solar heat ultimately disrupts a portion of the river that Indigenous people continuously inhabited for roughly 10,000 years.

“I want to point out that the last license issued back in the 1970s was completely absent of any Indigenous voices. This time around, we’ve been negotiating with FirstLight and FERC for over 12 years, trying to make our story as clear as possible and we have absolutely nothing to show for it at this point in time,” Graveline said. “The biggest part of it is there’s over 12,000 years of history in the middle of that river.”

Earlier this month, a joint public comment, signed by state Sen. Jo Comerford and state Reps. Natalie Blais, Daniel Carey, Mindy Domb, Lindsay Sabadosa and Aaron Saunders, recommended limiting the company’s license duration to 30 years rather than 50. It also recommended that FERC mandate the release of public data on the projects’ impact on the Connecticut River and its surrounding environment, as well as the creation of a monitoring and enforcement system to ensure the projects comply with environmental regulations.

In a written response to the joint comment sent to the Greenfield Recorder on May 6, FirstLight Communications Manager Claire Belanger stated that the company’s efforts demonstrated through the fish passage settlement agreement qualified it for a 50-year license.

“We believe the level of investment committed through our settlement agreements warrants a 50-year license term, which is a common license term for large-scale hydropower assets throughout the country,” Belanger wrote. “Hydropower and pumped-hydro storage are recognized as critical resources in our fight against climate change by experts across the U.S., including most states and the federal government, and we expect our assets to continue providing reliable, low-cost, clean electricity for the duration of a 50-year license.”

Anthony Cammalleri can be reached at acammalleri@recorder.com.