Karl Meyer: Why renew a federal license to continue killing a river?

This commentary is by Karl Meyer of Greenfield, Massachusetts, a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Fifty-one years after the first Earth Day, the four-state Connecticut River remains prisoner to an ecosystem-crippling license the Federal Power Commission issued in Massachusetts for the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project in 1968. 

Finished in 1972 and built to run off the massive overproduction of electricity from the then-new Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, the Northfield Mountain project began sucking up huge, hours-long inhalations of the Connecticut’s flow. Everything pulled into its giant tunnels perished, from tiny fish eggs to 3-foot-long American eels. 

It would be decades before a hint of the scale of its annual carnage would be understood.

What we do finally know a half-century on is that the Northfield Mountain project’s full-strength reversing turbines can suck the river backward for over 3 miles during yearly natural low-flow cycles. In doing so, it literally erases all essential characteristics of a living ecosystem — consuming huge amounts of electricity to defy gravity while obliterating every fish and creature pulled up its vortex.

Of the too few “entrainment” studies we have, estimates from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have pointed to yearly American shad losses of over 10 million eggs and larvae, and 2.5 million juvenile shad to Northfield Mountain’s suction.

These are fish that literally fed this valley for millennia — from the Pocumtuck and Abenaki people to 18th-century farmers upstream at Bellows Falls, Vermont. Today this net-power-loss, river-reversing machine chews through the Connecticut’s fish while profits from this FirstLight plant accrue for its Canadian venture capital parent-owner PSP Investments — but only after being sent south for cleaning in a limited liability tax shelter in Delaware.

Northfield’s huge impacts are experienced across a 50-mile reach of river from Vernon, Vermont, through Northampton to the Holyoke Dam. Today, the nearest commercial shad fishing for table consumption takes place in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, 90 miles downriver of the Northfield Mountain project. 

With 24 species subjected to its suction, how many tens of billions of creatures have been lost to this ecosystem across a half-century — in violation of established state and federal law, and grimly counter to the laws of nature? 

The year-round, median average flow for the 20 miles of river that Northfield Mountain pulls on between the Vernon and Turners Falls dams amounts to approximately 8,400 cubic feet per second. Yet Northfield’s turbines eat up the current at 15,000 cubic feet per second for hours, sucking water uphill to a 4-billion gallon reservoir for its few hours of later, peak-priced regeneration. 

Thus, during its night withdrawals, the river is literally reduced to a deflating, back-flowing basin that can hardly be considered a living system anywhere from Turners Falls to central Vermont and New Hampshire. 

Vermont Yankee, the Northfield Mountain project’s source of cheap juice, closed in 2014. Today this machine that consumes one-third more energy than it returns to the wires as peak-priced electricity runs its killer blades on ISO-New England’s mega-grid mix of 50% climate-crippling natural gas, 25% imported nuclear energy and 10% actual hydropower purchased from Canada.

In 1999, Massachusetts deregulated its electricity market and Northfield Mountain operations changed. Curiously over the next decade, already long-poor fish passage at Turners Falls plummeted — including years when successful American shad passage dropped below 1% at the dam.

Then, on May 1, 2010, the Northfield Mountain project choked on its own effluent — the muck and detritus accumulated in its reservoir. Unexpectedly, it remained off-line and silenced for over half a year. Northfield Mountain didn’t operate again until November, sanctioned by the EPA for gross violation of the Clean Water Act for secretly dumping thousands of tons of its fouling muck directly into the Connecticut River.

Two regional surprises occurred across the months of Northfield’s unplanned, ecosystem-quieting experiment. Without its massive flow disruptions, fish passage at Turners Falls Dam shot back to 800% over the grim averages of the previous decade after deregulation. 

And, despite long-touted support for the daily operation of Northfield Mountain’s death turbines from ISO-New England, the power grid held together just fine for over half a year — even with record-breaking summer heat and a refueling outage at Vermont Yankee, which would permanently close four years later.

I’m now heading into my ninth year as an intervener and stakeholder in the grim Federal Energy Regulatory Commission process to relicense this facility. A foreign operator wants a new half-century of this net-power-loss, river-eating scheme. 

The Connecticut is the ancient lifeblood of this region. Our children deserve nothing less than a living ecosystem — and not a decade more of this monopoly-capital dominated cash cow and its license to kill.


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