Valley lawmakers seek shorter license for FirstLight hydropower projects

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

The calm flowing 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: 05-10-2024 4:18 PM

TURNERS FALLS — Area lawmakers are asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to limit the relicensing of FirstLight’s hydropower projects from 50 years to 30 years, and to mandate the company disclose more data to the public about its environmental impacts, according to a joint filing with the federal agency last week.

The joint public comment, signed by Sen. Jo Comerford and Reps. Natalie Blais, Daniel Carey, Mindy Domb, Lindsay Sabadosa and Aaron Saunders, addresses the company’s decade-long license renewal process for both its Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project and the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, in an effort to balance the projects’ financial and environmental impacts.

The lawmakers recommended limiting the company’s license duration to 30 years rather than 50, mandating the release of public data on the projects’ impact on the Connecticut River and its surrounding environment, as well the creation of a monitoring and enforcement system to ensure the projects comply with environmental regulations.

“This relicensing is a generational opportunity. We recognize that FirstLight is a taxpayer and an employer, but we also recognize Indigenous stakeholders, the community, the environment, recreation,” Comerford said. “We need significant and robust data and transparency, we need it to be publicly available and we need real-time monitoring. We hope that FirstLight agrees to do that, but if it doesn’t, then we really want FERC to mandate it.”

FirstLight has operated the Turners Falls dams and Northfield hydro-pump facility under a temporary license since 2018. Since then, the company has faced criticism from environmental advocacy groups for their impact on fish, the Connecticut River and the surrounding environment.

In 2023, the company completed the “Flows and Fish Passage Settlement Agreement” portion of the relicensing process, outlining plans to ensure future fish passage and migration as well as the protection of threatened and endangered species. The legislative delegation recommended that FERC shorten FirstLight’s nine-year timeline for installation of a fishlift and seven-year deadline for the installation of a barrier net.

Because of the company’s high energy storage and generation costs, Comerford said the delegation also recommended the creation of a decommissioning fund from which surrounding communities can draw, should FirstLight decide to end or move its operations in the future.

FirstLight’s licenses only account for two of the five hydroelectric companies applying for federal licenses. Comerford said the delegation asks FERC to investigate the potential ways in which all five facilities, including the Bellows Falls, Vernon and Wilder Dams owned by Great River Hydro, could work together to mitigate and prevent flooding.

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“FirstLight has told us on a number of occasions that it could not have done anything meaningful, for example, to help the farms and communities affected by the July storms, so we’re asking FERC to see if the combined effort of five facilities could have a meaningful impact,” Comerford said.

The lawmakers are also recommending that FERC “heed to the requests of Indigenous stakeholders” in its consideration of the facilities’ licenses and reduce the license’s duration from 50 years to the minimum 30 years.

“It is imperative that a shorter license be granted so that we have the ability to seize opportunities to address pressing issues, implement innovations and alter the operation of FirstLight in ways that seek to balance myriad environmental and energy concerns,” the joint comment states.

In a written response to the joint comment sent to the Greenfield Recorder, FirstLight Communications Manager Claire Belanger said 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.”

The public comment period on FirstLight’s Amended Final License Application for FERC ends May 22. FERC has an instruction page on how to submit a comment at ferc.gov/how-file-comment. Those who wish to comment will need to include the docket numbers for each of FirstLight’s facilities: Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project (P-2485-071) and Turners Falls Dam (P-1889-085).

Then, on May 29, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection will be holding two virtual hearings — at 1:30 and 7 p.m. — on FirstLight’s application for a state 401 Water Quality Certification, which is required as part of FirstLight’s pending relicensing application with FERC. For more information about the hearings, visit tinyurl.com/FirstLightWater.

“This decade-long relicensing effort has included dozens of stakeholders and numerous opportunities for public engagement,” Belanger wrote. “It has required us to balance competing interests and reach compromise for the ultimate unifying goal of a healthy Connecticut River with enhanced aquatic habitat and accessible recreation, as is reflected in our 401 Water Quality Certification Application filed with MassDEP and the Flows and Fish Passage and Recreation Settlement Agreements.”

MassDEP will also accept written comments until 5 p.m. on June 3. The department encourages electronic submission by email to dep.hydro@mass.gov, which must include “FirstLight 401 WQC” in the subject line. In lieu of electronic submittal, paper comments may be mailed to Elizabeth Stefanik, Attn: FirstLight 401WQC, MassDEP-BWR, 100 Cambridge Street, Suite 900, Boston, MA 02114.

   Anthony Cammalleri can be reached at acammalleri@recorder.com or 413-930-4429.