Karl Meyer: The grinching of the great river

  • Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project upper reservoir. Recorder file photo

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Each winter solstice a few friends and I gather on a quiet bridge to offer a toast honoring New England’s “Great River.” Lingering above its cold December waters, we send along hopes for the river’s coming year.

As central artery to a four-state ecosystem and the Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, the Connecticut River needs all the help it can get. Just upstream are the grimmest 10 miles of habitat in its entire 410-mile run. Worst are the suctioning turbines of FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, eviscerating millions of migratory and resident fish year-round.

Nearby are the starkly-dewatered 2½ miles of riverbed dubbed the “By Pass Reach” — ground zero as the sole documented natural spawning site for federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon.

“Rinse, kill, repeat” has been the daily routine at Northfield since 1972. Formerly running off Vermont Yankee’s excess nuclear electricity, it now operates via massive amounts of imported electricity, basically functioning like a nightmare giant electric toilet. Sucking the river up to its 4-billion gallon reservoir tank for hours at rates of up to 15,000 cubic feet per second, it kills all life vacuumed up in its vortex.

Later, at peak times and peak prices, operators flush that dead water back through turbines, producing a few hours of expensive second-hand juice.

To picture one second of 15,000 cubic square foot suction, imagine a three-story mansion with seven bedrooms and eigth full bathrooms filled to the rafters with aquatic life. Now watch it wrenched backward and sucked to oblivion: all fish, eggs, animals and insects destroyed by reversing blades on a twice-through Northfield sleigh ride. Now picture 60 grim implosions each minute, 600 every 10 minutes — 3,600 mansions obliterated every hour for hours on end.

A FirstLight consultant’s 2016 study estimated Northfield’s operations resulted in the loss of just 2,200 juvenile American shad. Yet results from a study released in 2018 by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Massachusetts Fisheries & Wildlife estimated that carnage from those same operations actually resulted in the loss of 1,029,865 juvenile shad.

Other imperiled migrants include American eel, sea lamprey and blueback herring. Largely unstudied are lethal impacts on two dozen resident species. The more it runs, the more it kills.

Northfield has never produced a single watt of its own power, nor will owners, after bragging to be able to power a million homes for seven hours, point out they must actually consume the megawatts of some 1.25-1.33 million homes in order to do so. It’s a net-loss system, an electric toilet filled by chewing through the core of the Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

FirstLight now wants to run Northfield even more — attempting to rebrand its second-hand electric output as clean, renewable energy. And the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and ISO-New England are doing their best to keep the company’s unholy new vision afloat. It marries ecosystem destruction with renewable ocean energy in a corporate-shareholder package to service unprecedented, climate warming, construction booms in metro Boston, Providence, Worcester and elsewhere.

Massachusetts, host to this plant — and as the largest energy-consuming state in New England — ought to be ashamed and brought to task for the climate and ecosystem futures of its children.

In the 1980s, a grim proposal arose to employ Northfield to suck up more of the river and pipe it to Quabbin Reservoir for use as reserve metro-Boston water. But citizens, states and towns rebelled under leadership from the likes of the late-Terry Blunt of the Connecticut River Watershed Council and Hadley’s Alexandra Dawson of the Conservation Law Foundation.

The result was the 1984 MA Interbasin Transfer Act, forbidding the out-of-basin export of river resources until all conservation efforts are first exhausted. Such leadership is sorely missed today.

On Dec. 20, 2018 FirstLight’s Canadian parent-owners quietly spirited their assets out of New England, re-registering them as separate, limited liability corporate tax shelters in Delaware. It was slick timing. Federal fish negotiators were to undergo a government shutdown the next day. Meanwhile, FirstLight remained in the middle of a bid to keep operating its U.S. facilities for decades here under new FERC licensing.

Stakeholders didn’t learn of their move until Jan. 8, 2019. Nearly all cried foul to FERC.

Huge concerns included the loss of access to information used for valuations and information assuring FirstLight can and will be held accountable to supply the construction and funds necessary to meet U.S. and state environmental laws, including the Anadromous Fish Conservation Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act under new licensing.

One year later at the solstice, New England’s Great River remains without courageous leadership and in desperate need of a new nongovernment organization — one with a fiery legal department.

Karl Meyer’s “River Report” is broadcast regularly on WHMP. He’s been on the Fish and Aquatics Study Team in the “5-year” FERC relicensing process for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls projects since 2013. Meyer is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. He lives in Greenfield.