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Greenfield Recorder – City officials and residents voice concerns about FirstLight at MassDEP hearing

The sky is reflected in the calm waters of the Connecticut River before it crashes onto the rocks below Turners Falls Dam.
EMPLOYEE FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

TURNERS FALLS – As FirstLight Hydro Generating Co. moves forward with its decade-long license to continue operating its facilities along the Connecticut River, municipal officials and residents expressed concerns about potential environmental impacts to the state Department of Environmental Protection during a hearing Wednesday.

FirstLight has operated the Turners Falls dams and Northfield water pumping plant under a temporary license since 2018 and is currently applying to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for a 50-year license extension. The company has faced criticism from environmental groups over the facilities' impacts on fish, the Connecticut River and the surrounding environment.

In a public hearing held virtually, citizens expressed concerns about erosion and damage to aquatic ecosystems and areas of historical significance in FirstLight's application for water quality certification from MassDEP. The certification is required as part of FirstLight's pending application to FERC.

After environmental attorney Pamela Harvey outlined the legally required surface water quality standards, mentioning aquatic life, pollution and water flow rates as factors to be considered in the study, Montague Town Manager Steve Ellis and Gill Town Manager Ray Purington commented on FirstLight and its impact on their communities.

Ellis expressed concern about the water levels described in FirstLight's application, which range from 176 to 185 feet. He said that level is “close to the height” of the dam's dams. Ellis described the Turner Falls reservoir as a “sacrifice zone” for the company's other projects.

“In many ways, the entire existence of this community – economically, traditionally, culturally – has been defined by the Connecticut River, which flows right through our downtown,” Ellis said. “We understand and appreciate that there are more pristine river landscapes north and south of this area, but we view these as equal in terms of water quality assessment, both as protected land and as protected water.”

Ellis noted that a water level of 176 feet was “extraordinarily low” and could cause both erosion and “potentially irreparable harm” to aquatic life, and urged MassDEP to recommend a narrower water level range of at least 179 feet.

Purington also raised concerns about fluctuations in river levels, noting that erosion and siltation – sand and soil washed into the river – have caused damage to protected areas and harm to aquatic life during the time FirstLight has operated on the Connecticut River under its current license.

“Landowners have observed water overflowing their banks, in some places up to 30 feet or more, including protected farmland that has eroded and been swept away downstream. Some of the eroded soil eventually settles in various coves and bays, particularly the 160-acre Barton Cove just above Turners Falls Dam,” Purington said. “The resulting siltation impacts recreational use of the river for boating and fishing and makes it easier for invasive aquatic species to take hold.”

Although FirstLight is required to carry out erosion mitigation measures under its current licence, Purington said those efforts have been “largely unsuccessful”, noting that the company's 2009 bank stabilisation project failed to receive a certificate of compliance from the Gill Conservation Commission.

“FirstLight has been made aware of this deficiency several times over the years and has failed to respond or take action,” he said. “The measures proposed for the new license will not solve the erosion problems they have caused.”

Joe Graveline, a Northfield resident of Cherokee and Abenaki descent, is a senior adviser to the Nolumbeka Project, a Greenfield-based nonprofit that aims to preserve Native American culture and history. He said his group owns a 64-acre property at the base of the dam and argued that the changes caused by the river's flow posed a threat not only to the environment but also to his culture.

Graveline said increasing water temperatures from solar heat for a significant portion of the year ultimately disrupts a section of the river that has been continuously inhabited by indigenous peoples for around 10,000 years.

“I would point out that the last license issued in the 1970s did not include any Indigenous voices. This time, we have 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,” Graveline said. “The important thing is that there is over 12,000 years of history in the middle of this river.”

Earlier this month, a joint public statement 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 term to 30 years instead of 50. It also recommended that FERC mandate the release of public data on the projects' impacts on the Connecticut River and its surrounding environment, and the creation of a monitoring and enforcement system to ensure the projects comply with environmental protection regulations.

In a written response to the joint comment sent to the Greenfield Recorder on May 6, Claire Belanger, communications manager for FirstLight, said the company's efforts demonstrated under the fish ladder agreement qualified it for a 50-year license.

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

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

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