This commentary is by Karl Meyer of Greenfield, Massachusetts, who has been a stakeholder, intervenor, and member of the Fish and Aquatics Studies Team in the federal relicensing bid for Northfield Mountain since 2012. 

There’s an ugly paragraph I call the “Obedience Clause” buried deep in FirstLight Power’s comprehensive settlement agreement sent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on March 31, 2023. It’s a pact meant to enshrine future ecosystem conditions on the impoverished Connecticut River here in Massachusetts for the next 50 years.

It’s a humiliating requirement agreed to by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, plus a handful of recreation outfits oddly tossed into the fisheries, aquatics and flows negotiations at the last minute. The overall document required public agency signatures on Canadian-owned FirstLight Power Resources’s financially-stunted Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing bid for a crippled river ecosystem here for another half-century. 

But FirstLight’s little obedience clause also further requires the agencies to do what is essentially lobbying FERC for a ruinous private deal for flows from New England’s Great River:

“4.7 Support for Implementation: Upon notification by FirstLight of the need therefore, the other Parties shall provide written communications (or orally, in the event written communication is impossible to obtain due to reasons outside a Party’s control) of support in any administrative approval process that may be required for implementation of this Settlement Agreement or related articles of the New Project Licenses, subject to available Party resources and Regulatory Party authority and policy.”

What do their agency signatures require? When FirstLight says “Bark!” you bark. When they say “Speak!”, you speak. When FirstLight says “Beg!” you ask when and how and start lobbying FERC whenever corporate says “Go!” 

FERC loves to sit on the sidelines, favoring private interests over environmental enforcement and public rights, as it rubber-stamps licenses after ponderously long corporate license extensions like FirstLight’s, which expired back on April 30, 2018. So much for the public trust.

It’s a grim, great coup for FirstLight and its Canadian capital investment owners, PSP Investments. More grimly, it’s a shameful capitulation of our agencies. Their signing will only further help starve the blisteringly-withered, mechanically-reversed river ecosystem in Massachusetts of ancient, natural downstream flows, channel restoration and meaningful public compensation for the daily river-stopping, reversing, fish-killing chaos and obliteration of the physical and biological functions of this four-state river ecosystem by the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station here.

On May 9, 2023, I filed a “motion to intervene” with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission against relicensing the FirstLight-branded, Delaware tax-sheltered Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station for a new half-century, stating:

“NMPS is a river robbing, energy-wasting machine whose daily operations have now crippled critical miles of the first National Blueway in the United States for half a century. It should not be in daily operation under current federal (Clean Water Act) and state standards, and unless and until it can be shown to come into compliance with those standards, it cannot be relicensed by FERC under FirstLight’s proposed conditions. Regardless of any state and federal signatory stakeholder endorsements attached to FirstLight’s relicensing requests, allowing Northfield Mountain’s crushing aquatic impacts and energy waste is not in the public interest and runs contrary to landmark federal and state environmental law.”

The very next day, those half-dozen recreation outfits, including the Appalachian Mountain Club, trumpeted their support in a letter to FERC. The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife obediently expressed its ardor in its own FERC letter the day following. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries had already made good on their obedience pledge via a get-it-over-with lobby letter to FERC weeks ago.

Northfield wasteful, you ask? Well, the later into this now 11-year FERC relicensing monolith, the more facts come squeaking out — after agency sign-offs. Here’s FirstLight’s new quote filed to FERC on the massively wasteful, grid-parasitizing operation of its buy-low/sell-high energy profit model for Northfield, in place for 51 years now:

“The average annual generation consumed by the Northfield Mountain Project under baseline conditions. The average ratio of pumping (1,189,640 MWh average from 2011-2019) to generating (889,845 MWh average from 2011-2019) is approximately 1.34, meaning it takes 34% more energy to pump than to generate.”

Northfield squanders over one-third more energy than it regenerates. It’s never produced a single watt of clean, renewable energy. It doesn’t make its own power; it can’t. It is an electric money machine, reselling energy pulled from the grid to suck the river backward and uphill, later sending it back as the twice-produced, peak-priced juice we pay for in a dead river and monthly charges on energy bills. 

Today Northfield Mountain is basically a natural gas plant — by far the leading grim energy source fueling ISO-New England’s corporation-dominated power structure. In the future, FirstLight/PSP Investments hopes to clear its Connecticut River-crippling profits by sucking grid wind power from Atlantic Ocean turbines to run New England’s Great River into the ground — in turn, reselling that dead river juice back out to energy hungry cities on the coast.

Our agencies have sold out. Meanwhile, a prosecuting defender like Riverkeeper — which waged and won court battles against a pumped storage at Storm King Mountain on the Hudson decades back — never emerged here. That combination is how ecosystems are left to die.

Pieces contributed by readers and newsmakers. VTDigger strives to publish a variety of views from a broad range of Vermonters.