Double standard on the Connecticut
On June 28, Jeff C. Wright, director of energy projects for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, ruled against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as it sought two extra weeks to review hundreds of pages of just-released proposed study plans for the relicensing of five Connecticut River hydro projects. “The request for a 15-day EOT to file comments on the licensee’s proposed study plans is denied.”
EOT is FERC-speak for “extension of time.” Those studies will impact this four-state river for the next 20-40 years. Agencies joining that request included the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Massachusetts division of Fish and Wildlife, the Connecticut River Watershed Council, the Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Service and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
One big reason for that request was the difficulties in evaluating the impacts of FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls hydro operations on the entire Connecticut River ecosystem. Beginning last fall, FERC begun deviating from its standardized relicensing model when it scheduled public site visits to FirstLight sites weeks before the company released a publicly required 500-page pre-application document describing its complex pumped storage operations and machinery.
This spring FERC also supported FirstLight’s expedited request to conduct a series of complicated river flow studies this summer — an allowance falling well outside FERC’s strict licensing timelines. In doing so they let the company schedule three days of river visits by federal and state agencies smack in the middle of their deadline to comment on FirstLight’s 434-page updated proposed study plan.
FirstLight released that document June 28; comments to FERC are due July 15. Even after nine meetings with the power company and FERC, many agency representatives continued to decry the lack of critical scientific detail provided in FirstLight’s documents. Those were put together by its team of five consulting firms. Ironically, those handpicked FirstLight firms will conduct the next two years of river studies — the ones meant to protect the river. A fox and chicken coop analogy applies.
FERC is employing a legal double standard here on the Connecticut. If you are a public agency or citizen seeking protections for the ecosystem — well, even little rules are the rules. At the same time it appears corporations can continuously and sometimes massively ignore federal license requirements with impunity.
In FERC’s own words, the commission “enforces the conditions of each license for the duration of its term, and conducts project safety and environmental inspections.” Yet today Holyoke Gas and Electric is half a decade — and counting — in violation of its 2002 agreement to construct facilities to end the evisceration of federally endangered shortnose sturgeon and other “federal trust” fish migrating downstream at their Holyoke dam facility. So why have a license at all?
Upstream in 2010 GDF-Suez FirstLight dumped some of 45,000 cubic square yards of reservoir sludge directly into the Connecticut at Northfield Mountain over a 90-day period — the equivalent of 40 dump truck loads of muck per day, smack in the middle of fish migration season. Yet in current documents FERC states their inspections have never found FirstLight in violation of its license.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found FirstLight in violation of the Clean Water Act in August 2010 and ordered a massive cleanup, though the ecosystem damage was already done. In an Aug. 4, 2010, letter, EPA sanctioned FirstLight for violating “FERC License No. 2485” and polluting the “navigable waters of the United States.” A subsequent letter from FERC’s biological resources branch chief, Steve Hocking, to FirstLight manager John Howard specifically referenced the EPA’s sanctions, directing him to “article 20 of your license.” Yet there is virtually no FERC mention of that egregious violation in current relicensing documents.
That’s the standard that for-profit companies are held to here. It rivals the Pirate Code. Currently there is no watchdog entity on this river willing to go to the mat to protect the ecosystem. If, as on the Hudson, there was an organization like Riverkeeper — which cites “enforcement” as one of its main responsibilities, these egregious injuries to the Connecticut would not likely stand. Holyoke Gas and Electric would have been in court long ago for killing endangered sturgeon; and the full range of FirstLight’s lethal impacts on the Connecticut’s migratory fish when all are diverted into their turbine-filled power canal would have been fully investigated. FERC’s inaction is a disgrace.
FERC director Wright requested that questions regarding that EOT denial go to Ken Hogan at: 202-502-8434, or Kenneth.Hogan@ferc.gov. Ken has presided over the Connecticut River relicensing hearings. Also, you can find FirstLight’s 434-page “Updated Proposed Study Plan” at: www.northfieldrelicensing.com under Documents. The public has until July 15 to send comments on that plan to FERC. You do that at: www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/efiling.asp. You must cite FirstLight’s project numbers, P-2485 and P-1889, and be sure to note that you are commenting on the “Updated Proposed Study Plan.”
Karl Meyer is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. He lives in Greenfield, Mass. Read more at: www.karlmeyerwriting.com.