My Turn: More public input sought in new phase of FirstLight relicensing

Cabot Station turbine hall, part of FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project.

Cabot Station turbine hall, part of FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project. FIRSTLIGHT POWER

Turners Falls Dam

Turners Falls Dam FIRSTLIGHT POWER

By JOHN HOWARD

Published: 04-04-2024 7:01 PM

 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a Ready for Environmental Analysis (REA) notice for FirstLight’s Turners Falls Hydroelectric and Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Projects on Feb. 22, a pivotal moment in the relicensing process for these facilities. An REA notice is issued when FERC determines it has all the information necessary to conduct its environmental analysis of the project seeking a license.

Behind this regulatory procedure is a tremendous amount of groundwork and effort, which, for FirstLight, meant over a decade of study, consultation, negotiation, conversation, comments, responses, revisions, proposals, and agreements.

In October 2012, FirstLight kicked off the relicensing process for its Turners Falls Hydroelectric and Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Projects on the Connecticut River in Franklin County. We held meetings with community members, business owners, nongovernment organizations and more, offering a seat at the table to anyone desiring to provide input, amounting to hundreds of stakeholders participating in the licensing process.

We regularly consulted with over 20 federal and state agencies, organizations, and towns. We developed over 40 scientific study plans, sought input on each, provided study reports, held meetings, responded to public comments on the reports, and conducted further study in response to comments and when required by FERC.

With this wealth of input and information, in 2020, FirstLight crafted a new license proposal as part of its Amended Final License Application (AFLA). FirstLight’s AFLA was then further modified based on negotiations among numerous federal and state agencies, NGOs, towns, and recreation groups relative to project operations, fish passage and recreation, resulting in the Flows and Fish Passage and Recreation Settlement Agreements that were signed in 2023.

Each of these organizations and individuals represented interests that sought to improve various aspects of the facilities while balancing competing priorities. FERC also invited public comments on the Settlement Agreements, and FirstLight responded to those comments. In addition, to address stakeholder comments and concerns, FirstLight recently supplemented its new license proposal with measures to address aquatic invasive plant species and stream bank erosion, two issues not resolved by the Settlement Agreements.

This comprehensive process was designed to seek the input of all stakeholders multiple times and address the information needs of the state and federal agencies that regulate the use of the Connecticut River to provide clean hydroelectric power. The Settlement Agreements we reached represent sets of balanced compromises between signatories with varying interests and the shared goal of a healthy Connecticut River with enhanced aquatic habitat and accessible recreation.

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Among the signatories to the Flows and Fish Passage Settlement Agreement were the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and leading nature and conservation organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, American Whitewater, and Appalachian Mountain Club. Signatories to the Recreation Settlement Agreement include our home communities of Erving, Gill, Montague and Northfield, the National Park Service, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, American Whitewater, and more.

We are appreciative of the significant effort made by the signatories to evaluate the substantial available science, weigh numerous priorities, and reach compromise for the benefit of the Connecticut River and Franklin County.

FERC’s REA notice triggers a new phase of this process and brings even more opportunities for the public to offer input and get involved. First, FERC’s REA notice invited public comments on FirstLight’s new license applications. Second, FERC will begin work on its Draft Environmental Impact Statement under the National Environmental Policy Act, which will ultimately be circulated for public comment. Third, continuing our decadelong consultation with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection on a range of issues related to relicensing, FirstLight will be applying to MassDEP for a Water Quality Certification under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act.

The MassDEP process will include public hearings, public information sessions, and the opportunity for written comments, allowing interested stakeholders to provide further input in the licensing process.

For FirstLight, this next phase represents another meaningful public engagement opportunity in this comprehensive process. It also marks a crucial progression toward new FERC licenses and our ability to deliver clean, local, affordable power for future generations and catalyze robust investments in new and expanded recreation facilities in Franklin County, and enhanced fish passage and aquatic habitat in the Connecticut River.

We are proud of our legacy in Franklin County and beyond, ensuring the benefits of the clean energy transition are brought to western Massachusetts, supporting grid resiliency with large capacity, long duration and responsive energy storage, maintaining accessible recreation spaces for all to enjoy, providing good-paying union and non-union jobs, and investing in our home communities. New licenses will allow us to grow this impactful legacy further.

FirstLight is truly grateful for the many towns, organizations, agencies, and community members who participated in this process thus far, and with this dedicated period of public engagement kicking off, we encourage the public to get involved and use this opportunity to offer input. For the benefit of public education to inform comment, we’ve compiled helpful resources below.

MassDEP’s 401 WQC page for the FirstLight Hydroelectric Re-Licensing Project.

FirstLight’s Turners Falls and Northfield Relicensing website.

FERC eLibrary.

■Turners Falls Hydroelectric Project (FERC No. 1889).

■Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project (FERC No. 2485).

John Howard is the senior vice president of plant operations for FirstLight and a lifelong western Massachusetts resident.