The following piece appeared in The Recorder in Greenfield, MA in the first week of August.

Sucking out the river’s life

Copyright © 2015 by Karl Meyer

Whether it’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licensing for a sprawling gas pipeline or a cluster of power projects on the Connecticut, the public isn’t getting the accountability and voice its entitled to. That hit me after contacting Tobey Stover from the US EPA’s Region 1 Offices about GDF-Suez FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station. I called EPA because FirstLight had just given notice they were cancelling part of an ongoing sediment-testing program to gauge the impacts of their giant Northfield station on the Connecticut’s ecosystem.

EPA mandated that long-term testing after FirstLight massively violated the Clean Water Act by “polluting the navigable waters of the United States” in August 2010. To wit: they’d dumped the equivalent of 30 – 40 truckloads of sludge directly into the river at Northfield—each day for over 90 days straight, until getting caught. In the largest case of profligate dumping in decades, miles of river bathed in over 45,000 cubic square yards of sludge—smack in the middle of fish spawning time. Continuous testing was being required, in part, for inclusion in GDF-Suez FirstLight’s application for a new FERC license to continue sucking giant gulps of river to generate secondhand electricity.

Despite what many think, Northfield is not a hydropower plant. It’s a double-energy-loss, net-cash-gain contraption. It’s an energy transfer, storage and resale operation—offering twice-generated electricity back to the grid at peak-demand, peak market prices. Northfield was conceived as a giant, nuclear-powered pump. It technically qualifies on the books as a 1,200 megawatt unit —the output of TWO Vermont Yankees, but it supplies just a sliver of peak-priced electricity to our market while creating the most ecosystem havoc. This is a power-consuming operation, run on imported juice. On its own it can’t produce a single watt of electricity—nothing clean or renewable about it.

Northfield was built to profit from pumping the river backward via cheap, excess electricity produced at night at regional nuclear plants. With the nukes closed, it continues slicing through a river’s aquatic life on a diet of climate-warming fossil fuels. To do so it must purchases giant blocks of wholesale electricity so it can spend hours slurping endless gulps of river uphill through slicing turbines. When reversed those turbines spit our river back out as expensive, twice-produced juice. Sadly, Northfield can only offer 6 – 8 hours of peak-priced energy to the electricity “spot market”—because after that its 5 billion gallon reservoir is spent, rendering it unable to light your nite light. Then they start buying up “virgin” electricity to suck the river backward again.

If those daily pulses of destruction were silenced, an ecosystem would begin to heal. Though they fancy themselves as a key component of the grid, Northfield Mountain’s own sludge so-fouled its turbines in 2010 that it was instantly, unexpectedly, shut down for half a year. Yet nobody noticed, no one went without power—not even when Vermont Yankee went off-line to refuel. Instead of customers paying the high cost of a ruined river–sold back to them less than half-alive at peak prices, they received once-produced electricity without the collateral damage.

Mr. Stover at EPA was pleasant and helpful. He confirmed the world’s largest private energy purveyor would be let off their continuous-sampling-hook–because equipment they’d purchased had experienced repeated problems. They’d further petitioned EPA, whining about difficulties supplying electricity to their samplers. Hummn… GDF-Suez offered to instead use its own consulting firm to build a model of the plant’s operations, substituting simulations for real-time federal data. EPA was leaning toward accepting that too. Really?

It appears Northfield’s massive impacts are simply too violent to be directly calculated—perhaps too costly to allow to cripple an ecosystem? Why not order GDF-Suez to buy new equipment and start over? And isn’t it time EPA did their own study of the impacts of the massive sucking and juicing of all that aquatic life—fish, plants, insect larvae, twice through the turbines, for hours on end, at upwards of 15,000 cubic feet per second? Think 15,000 bowling balls a second, for hours—first up, then back through again.

Northfield creates such crushing impacts it shouldn’t have been built. Once Vermont Yankee closed, its damages should’ve been sidelined as well—used only as back-up to provide brief, dense pulses of juice during emergencies. Yet today it continues to operate, even during spring-summer fish migration season. Its voracious water appetite plays a key role in the failure of the half-century old, four-state Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration program, Congressionally-authorized in 1967 under the US Fish & Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries.

This corporate “self-determination” is the grim legacy of the Bush-Cheney Administration’s secret energy policies. With huge gas, hydro, and pumped storage proposals on the docket, public accountability has gone AWOL. In the Holy Grail of “corporate citizenship” industry is now its own watchdog–“self-reporting” to agencies on the impacts of its own energy production and pollution. Both concepts belong in the Oxymoron Hall of Fame. Giant companies are running the table on climate, pollution, impacts and price–as our regulatory agencies fail to act on behalf of the public’s long-term interests.

Karl Meyer of Greenfield, MA is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. He is participating in the FERC hydro relicensing process for power plants on the Connecticut River.