Guest columnist Sarah Matthews: FirstLight sweeping public comment aside


Published: 07-06-2023 12:35 PM

An opinion piece was recently published in this paper by an executive at FirstLight Power, the company that owns the Turners Falls Dam and Northfield Pumped Storage Hydropower Station [“Setting the record straight on flows and fish passage commitments,” May 31]. The FirstLight executive wrote to address the “great deal of misinformation” circulating about the Flows and Fish Passage Settlement Agreement (Settlement Agreement) recently signed in connection with relicensing of the FirstLight facilities by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Both the Turners and Northfield facilities wreak tremendous damage on the Connecticut River and its ecosystem, yet the writer insisted that his company works to “constantly evaluate” how to operate its facilities “with as little environmental impact on the Connecticut River as possible,” and concluded his piece with the ostensibly generous and welcoming statement that there would be “significant opportunity for public engagement on issues related to the relicensing of our Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls projects over the next year, and we encourage the community to engage with this process as together we seek to deliver a carbon-free future and a thriving Connecticut River.”

What a difference a few days make!

Just over a week after the above statements appeared in this paper, FirstLight issued a blistering response to public comments received by FERC on the Settlement Agreement. Based on its response, FirstLight appears laser-focused on shutting down all further public contributions to, and participation in, relicensing of the Turners and Northfield facilities.

Comments on the Settlement Agreement were submitted to FERC during the only public comment period following signing of the agreement. They came from different sources, including: the Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC), the nonprofit whose sole mission since its founding in 1952 has been to advocate for the Connecticut River watershed; a group of faculty members and students at UMass Amherst who specialize in river management and electric markets and policy; members of Nolumbeka and other local Indigenous groups; and other members of the public.

All of these public comments were appropriately and timely submitted, and the comments were substantive and varied, each expressing the concerns and areas of expertise of the commentators.

Nevertheless, using disturbingly harsh and often insulting language, FirstLight through its Washington, D.C., lawyers, summarily dismissed all of the public comments on the Settlement Agreement that were submitted to FERC.

FirstLight was highly critical and dismissive of CRC, which has tirelessly participated as a stakeholder in the Turners and Northfield relicensing proceedings for over a decade. In an unjustifiably contemptuous tone, FirstLight claimed CRC “does not demonstrate that it possesses the requisite technical expertise … to make any unique contribution to the development or ongoing implementation” of FirstLight’s plans, and went on to demand that FERC strike CRC’s comments from the official record or “give them no weight,” because the person who signed the comments is not a lawyer and not obviously an officer of CRC.

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This gratuitously insulting tone and trivia-based call for striking 110 pages of carefully documented input reveals the company’s true attitude toward stakeholders who care about the Connecticut River.

FirstLight was similarly critical and dismissive of comments submitted by other parties. The UMass professors and students submitted several pages of carefully considered comments, among other things urging FirstLight to add needed monitoring to evaluate the impacts of its operations over the course of its next license and to plan for any needed changes in management practices based on this monitoring. FirstLight brushed these comments aside, without bothering to understand their import, peremptorily stating that “the time to request studies has long since passed in this relicensing proceeding … the UMass Comments come simply too late.”

If it is too late even to suggest additional data collection by FirstLight over the next 40-50 years, then the seemingly warm invitation and reassurance of a significant opportunity for public input expressed by FirstLight’s executive is disingenuous at best.

FirstLight dismissed comments of other groups as well (including one that I am a part of, Western Mass Rights of Nature), contemptuously referring to them as “postcard-type comments from individuals that appear mostly scripted and parrot many of the talking points of CRC.”

The response from FirstLight to comments from the local Indigenous groups was perhaps most disturbing of all. The Indigenous groups provided a detailed history of the importance of the Connecticut River to the cultural and spiritual practices of their groups during 10,000 years of continuous Indigenous occupation in this region, and attested to the many serious, adverse impacts that the FirstLight facilities have had on these practices, including the dewatering of miles of former Indigenous landscape.

FirstLight dismissed all of these concerns, snidely stating that the groups “do not explain how this area [of the CT River] today would meet the definition of a “traditional cultural property” under National Register criteria,” a response that demonstrates disrespect and shocking insensitivity.

My response to FirstLight, its executives and lawyers, is simple:

I am one of many Massachusetts residents who are deeply concerned about the destruction that the Turners Falls Dam and Northfield Pump Station wreak on the Connecticut River and its ecosystem. We are keenly aware, as you should be, that any benefit these facilities provide to the public must be balanced against the destruction they cause.

FirstLight is a private company making huge profits from the energy produced by these facilities at the expense of a publicly owned river; FirstLight is not and must never be the sole decision maker regarding the licenses under which its facilities operate.

The public is entitled by law to participate in the relicensing of the Turners and Northfield facilities, and we will continue to do so. No matter how you choose to treat us, indeed the more you seek to dismiss us with insults and trivial technicalities, we will not stand down!

Sarah Matthews is an attorney and co-founder of Western Mass Rights of Nature. She lives in Amherst.