FERC to prepare Environmental Impact Statement for FirstLight operations

The Turners Falls dam operated by FirstLight Hydro Generating Co.

The Turners Falls dam operated by FirstLight Hydro Generating Co. COURTESY PHOTO/FIRSTLIGHT HYDRO GENERATING CO.

By ANTHONY CAMMALLERI

Staff Writer

Published: 06-17-2024 5:48 PM

TURNERS FALLS — The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) intends to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for FirstLight Hydro Generating Co.’s operations along the Connecticut River amid concerns that the dams might have a negative impact on their “human environment.”

FirstLight has operated the Turners Falls dams and Northfield hydro-pump facility under a temporary license since 2018 and is currently seeking a 50-year license renewal through FERC. During its roughly 10-year-long relicensing process, the company has faced criticism from environmental advocacy groups for the facilities’ impact on fish, the Connecticut River and the surrounding environment.

As part of the standard FERC license review process, the commission can require an application pass either an Environmental Assessment or the much more thorough Environmental Impact Statement. In a written notice published last week, FERC announced that a draft statement is slated to be complete and publicized in December before a public meeting on the project in January 2025.

“Based on the information in the record, including comments filed during scoping … staff has determined that relicensing the project may constitute a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment. Therefore, staff intends to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS),” FERC wrote.

As part of the licensing process, the federal commission’s Environmental Impact Statement comes as the state Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) completes a water quality certification of FirstLight’s facilities.

“This was a fully expected next step, and FirstLight is pleased that the relicensing process is continuing to move forward,” FirstLight Community Relations Director Andy Brydges said.

Last month, MassDEP held two virtual public meetings in which members of the public shared their concerns about erosion and damage to aquatic ecosystems and areas of historical significance. Montague Town Administrator Steve Ellis, at one of the May meetings, expressed concern with the broad water elevation levels described in FirstLight’s application, which range from 176 feet to 185 feet, a height that he said “approaches the height” of the dam’s gates. Ellis described the Turners Falls impoundment as being used as a “sacrifice zone” for the rest of the company’s projects.

In a phone interview Monday, Ellis said the town of Montague is “generally gratified” to see the process move “toward its conclusion.”

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“We hope and expect that the state will give thoughtful consideration to all comments brought forward by the town of Montague and other municipalities,” Ellis said.

Ellis added that he looks forward to the public hearing that will follow publication of FERC’s Environmental Impact Statement draft, a sentiment echoed by Franklin Regional Council of Governments Land Use and Natural Resources Planner Andrea Donlon, who serves as a representative of FirstLight’s host municipalities through the company’s relicensing process. FRCOG also organized and staffed the Connecticut River Streambank Erosion Committee.

Donlon said the fact that FERC is holding a hearing on the draft is emblematic of how important FirstLight’s operations are to those that neighbor the Connecticut River.

“I think it’s a recognition that so many people and organizations commented on the license that they realize that there’s a lot of public interest and concern,” Donlon said.

Earlier this month, a joint public comment, signed by state Sen. Jo Comerford and state Reps. Natalie Blais, Daniel Carey, Mindy Domb, Lindsay Sabadosa and Aaron Saunders, recommended limiting FirstLight’s license duration to 30 years rather than 50. It also recommended that FERC mandate the release of public data on the projects’ impact on the Connecticut River and its surrounding environment, as well as the creation of a monitoring and enforcement system to ensure the projects comply with environmental regulations.

Comerford said the local delegation will hold a meeting with the federal delegation and MassDEP on Thursday to discuss FERC’s decision to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement.

“I take this as a very good sign. I think it indicates a recognition that this relicensing has a high degree of public interest, public engagement and public concern attached to it and FERC is engaging with the kind of added thoroughness that many believe is required to get this right,” Comerford said. “What we do in this moment will affect a generation of people. Even if we are successful, as the delegation hopes, in shortening the length of the license, it’s still a very long time … so we have to get it right.”

Anthony Cammalleri can be reached at acammalleri@recorder.com or 413-930-4429.