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Fish Futures on a Broken River

Posted by on 04 Nov 2017 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Connecticut River Watershed Council, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Dr. Boyd Kynard, Endangere Species Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, fish passage, Holyoke Fish Lift, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, PSP Investments, Rock Dam Pool, Rutland Herald, shad, Shortnose Stout, shortnose sturgeon, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab, USFWS, Vermont, Vermont Digger

Copyright © 2017 by Karl Meyer, All RIGHTS RESERVED

FISH FUTURES ON A BROKEN RIVER

(NOTE: the following appeared in The Rutland Herald, wwww.rutlandherald.com, and on the pages of Vermont Digger, www.vtdigger.org in October)

It’s been decades since migratory fish on New England’s Great River got a break–bleak since deregulation came to federally-licensed electricity plants on the Connecticut beginning in 1998.

Deregulation turned a regional market into a venture capital free-for-all, opening the door to speculators and foreign interests controlling public resources. In less than 20 years the Vernon hydro station changed hands three times. The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant next door is currently courting a third owner. Downstream the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station and Turners Falls hydro complex flipped four times between investors. Further south, the Holyoke hydro station sold only once in 2002.

None of this proved healthy for an ecosystem.

The post-deregulation decade saw a steep slide in American shad passing Holyoke Dam. After two decades of averages well above 300,000 fish, yearly numbers plunged to near half that—a far cry from the 720,000 passed in 1992. Things were even more desperate at Turners Falls Dam. There, impacted by the massive water appetite and violent, peaking flows sent downstream by the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, passage dropped below 1% some years. For a decade, just 3 or 4 migrating shad in 100 were tallied emerging alive upstream. Today’s numbers languish near 1980s levels.

The federal license signed by Holyoke Gas & Electric in 2002 required they complete lift improvements at Holyoke by 2008 to pass endangered shortnose sturgeon upriver. Sturgeon were literally unable to spawn–blocked at that dam from reaching their only documented natural spawning site, a fail-safe refuge known as the Rock Dam Pool at Turners Falls. Year-in, year-out, that mandate went unenforced. It was finally met last year.

(Note: below, the flow-starved CT in Turners Falls looking downstream toward Rock Dam.CLICK, THEN CLICK AGAIN TO ENLARGE)

In 2004 federal fish biologist Dr. Boyd Kynard handed results of 15 years of Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon research to the National Marine Fisheries Service. He and colleagues had documented that that Rock Dam spawning site for the only federally-endangered migratory fish on the river was being decimated by industrial practices. Yearly gatherings failed for the few dozen spawning-ready sturgeon surviving upstream of Holyoke—as they attempted to continue a tenuous 200 million year-old genetic line. But NMFS didn’t come to their aid; no watchdog intervened.

Ultimately, decades of research by Kynard and company was compiled into Life History and Behaviour of Connecticut River Shortnose and other Sturgeons, published by the World Sturgeon Conservation Society. After experts at the Europe-based WSCS published the book in early 2012, the US Geological Service (where Kynard retired as a federal fish scientist) began making belated objections, halting all publication for a time. Their objections caused a de facto embargo of its sale in the U.S through that spring.

USGS cited editorial and style concerns in “recalling” three chapters on sturgeon biology and spawning—including the data and text showing industrial flows caused spawning failure at Turners Falls. Nearly a dozen state, federal, and university contributors to the book cried foul, citing censorship and the public’s right to government information. In June, concurrent with press inquiries and a letter from Congressman John Olver questioning the withholding of public science, USGS suddenly withdrew all its objections—days before an article highlighting the issues appeared in The Daily Hampshire Gazette. Federal agencies now had the facts. Yet despite the Endangered Species Act, none took action.

In spring of 2014 a popular beer, Shortnose Stout, debuted in the region. Its label displayed Kynard’s website and highlighted spawning conditions at Turners Falls. The Connecticut River Watershed Council soon stepped up to collect donated profits from its sale, yet those sturgeon were left hanging once more. Today conditions at Rock Dam remain as ruinous as when the first 2004 findings were released.

In 2015 the controversial chapters from Kynard’s book got entered into the public record in the current Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing process for Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls. With that science on the record, things changed at federal proceedings. Sturgeon spawning became a key factor in flow discussions for future FERC licenses there mandating river conditions. This June, new restoration targets to meet failed 50 year-old federal Anadramous Fish Conservation Act requirements were released by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. With passage failed for half a century at Turners Falls, new shad targets mandate 397,000 fish passing annually. New owner, Canada Public Pension Investments, will be on the hook to build lifts and safeguard sturgeon spawning.

In August a fisherman near Vernon landed an endangered shortnose sturgeon–a fish thought not to exist above Turners Falls. He took a photo and released the fish, sending the picture to officials who confirmed it; then forwarded it to the National Marine Fisheries Service. There is reason to believe that landing may not be an isolated occurrence. NMFS is taking the confirmed capture seriously. Is a remnant shortnose population clinging to life in Vermont and New Hampshire waters? Did someone release them there? Either way, federal law requires owners at Vernon Dam, VT Yankee and Northfield Mountain to protect the migratory fish of the United States as a public trust. After decades of speculation, it’s high time our fish had their day.

NOTE: author Karl Meyer was the idea-creator and author of the beer brand Shortnose Stout. He neither requested or received any compensation or recognition for his work, which was solely aimed at getting important information to the public.

From the Rutland Herald: Where our fish are trapped

Posted by on 16 Nov 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Bellows Falls, Connecticut River, Connecticut River migratory fisheries restoration, False attraction, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC licensing process, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Rutland Herald, shad, shad fishing, The Great Eddy, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont Yankee, Vernon Dam Fishway


The following piece, with edits, appeared in the Rutland Herald on November 12, 2015.

Dear Vermont and New Hampshire:

Sorry, but your fish are down here in Massachusetts. With Vermont Yankee’s heated discharges no longer clouding issues, that’s become clear. We’re talking hundreds of thousands annually. This year a quarter million might’ve reached Vernon and Hinsdale had we not corralled them. A hundred thousand in the Great Eddy at Bellows Falls might’ve been a possibility.

And these aren’t small fry. These are free-swimming American shad straight from the briny Atlantic—wild fish that snap at lures and offer anglers an honest fight. Fresh caught and sweet, they’re a homegrown harvest for anyone taking the time to debone them or put them in the slow roaster. You could’ve been enjoying all that.

Actually you were promised them by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and state fisheries agencies back in 1967. They’d arrive in the 1980s–when much-touted fish passage facilities got built downstream. Each successive dam would pass 75% of the fish passed by the dam below it. Yet only excuses arrived. You weren’t told your fish got caught in a trap—that the Turners fish ladder diversion was a disaster; that your shad run dies in a muck-filled power canal. That’s where your bounty is still driven from the river today—where fish get diverted into a last-chance canal from which few emerge upstream.

We’ve now had the first spring where VY’s discharge has not intercepted spring runs. It appears the nuke played a smaller role than long-rumored concerning dismal fish passage at Turners. Heated effluent ain’t great for any species–but fish deprived of a river are an unending ecosystem disaster.

The 2-1/2 miles below Turners Falls Dam are that disaster. Down here government agencies don’t require anything approaching sustaining nature-like flows in the Connecticut’s bed. It’s either deluge or desert—much of it produced by the mega-flushing and pumping flows Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station sends downstream. Part of that blistering regime gets re-diverted into the power canal 5 miles south—a trap each upstream migrant is funneled into.

That canal is where a great migration dies—where fish get delayed; fatigued, entrapped and eviscerated. Not one in ten shad have made it beyond Turners Falls across the decades. It’s not rocket science to understand–in fact, the math just got a little simpler.

The years 2013 and 2014 were the final years Vermont Yankee was heating the river. Of the 393,000 American shad passing Holyoke Dam in 2013, just 9% or 35,000 fish made it past Turners. Yet of those 35,000 fish, 18,000 or 51% swam safely past Vernon–20 miles upstream. Similarly in 2014 of the 371,000 shad passing Holyoke, just 40,000 or 11% were able to get through the canal past TF Dam. But of the 40,000 that made it, a full 28,000 or 69%, swam beyond Vernon toward upstream destinations.

Turners’ fishways opened in 1980; Vernon’s in-river fishway in 1981. Across the decades the annual average of shad passing Holyoke that make it past Turners is 4%. In the same span, Vernon averaged passage of 40% of the shad arriving from Turners. Passage at Turners hovered near 1% for the decade beginning in 2000 when deregulation began allowing Northfield Mountain to pump and profit from the river according to price peaks on the electricity “spot market.” Those peaking pulses decimate river habitats below Turners Falls.

Which is why 2015 proved interesting. This spring, with VY silent, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered a series of nature-like test flows to be sent through the gates at Turners Falls Dam into the impoverished riverbed–to gauge their impact on the public’s fish runs. It’s part of the 5-year FERC licensing process for Northfield and Turners. At Holyoke 413,000 shad passed upstream, while at Turners just 14% or 58,000 shad passed the dam. Yet 20 miles north, 69% or 40,000 of those fish, swam past Vernon Dam—an all-time record for shad passage there.

So here’s some math: Turners passed 9% in 2013; 11% in 2014, and 14% in 2015. Vernon passed 51% of their shad in 2013, 69% in 2014, and 68% in 2015. The difference between a year with VY’s heated effluent, and one without—was insignificant, a 1% change with shad passage actually dropping a fraction with Yankee silenced. Yet they still set a new shad passage record.

It’s noteworthy the 34 year-old Vernon record was broken the first time more in-river flow was required below Turners Falls Dam, supplying a direct route upstream during FERC’s May-June test flows. It clearly spared some fish the energy costs of industrial entrapment and the dangers of weeks in a turbine-lined canal.

The problem is that canal, and a decimated river at Turners Falls. You’ve been owed fish totaling in the millions across the decades–and an ancient connection to the sea all kids should know. They’re not the power company’s fish, they’re yours. Demand federal and state fisheries directors sue for those fish—and for the Connecticut River refuge your grandkids deserve.

With apologies,
Karl Meyer, Greenfield, MA

Writer Karl Meyer is participating in the FERC hydro relicensing studies for MA facilities on the Connecticut River. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Spawning shortnose sturgeon denied flow at Rock Dam Pool

Posted by on 08 May 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Dr. Boyd Kynard, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Extinction, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, GDF-Suez FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, Rock Dam, Rutland Herald, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, University of Massachusetts, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Vermont Digger

PRockDamPoolDewatered (2)
(to view lager image, click on photo).

NOTE: the photo above documents conditions found at the Rock Dam Pool on the Connecticut River on May 3, 2015. Seventeen years of published studies conducted by federal and University of Massachusetts fisheries researchers at the adjacent Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center show that these river conditions cause spawning failure for federally-endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon at the Rock Dam Pool, their only documented natural spawning site. The May 3rd river conditions found at Rock Dam mimicked mid-summer flows on the Connecticut–conditions that research shows drives spawning-ready females from the site, and de-waters the cobble-strewn pool where eggs and embryos attach and develop. April 25 to May 22 is the documented spawning window for the shortnose sturgeon on the Connecticut. It is a crime to kill, injure or interfere with endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon under federal and state law. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and the MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife are responsible for the protection of the Connecticut River’s only federally-endangered fish under the Endangered Species Act(ESA). GDF-Suez FirstLight controls river flows to this site via spill gate operations at the Turners Falls Dam, just upstream.

A RIVER PRESERVED IN PLASTIC Copyright © 2015 by Karl Meyer

(The following essay–with minor variation in each, appeared recently in The Recorder, The Rutland Herald, and at Vtdigger.org)

A lifeless, three-foot long Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon sits on display at the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls, MA. The shortnose has been this river’s only federally-endangered fish since 1967. That plastic sturgeon has sat amidst other replica fish for a dozen years now—a plastic American shad, a blueback herring, a trophy-size Atlantic salmon. They’re framed beneath a slightly-ruffled acrylic surface representing the Connecticut River at this flagship site of the Silvio Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge.

That display is the basic message offered to visitors here: ‘This is a river with congenial flows supporting populations of shad and herring, big native salmon, and federally-protected sturgeon.’

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Few upstream migrants reach Vermont and New Hampshire today. That’s part of the legacy of failure of federal and state fish agencies and watchdog groups claiming to safeguard an ecosystem and its native migratory fish. That legacy will remain intact until they confront ongoing conditions in Massachusetts that have been crippling the river here for decades.

That Discovery Center depiction falls apart if visitors simply walk outside onto the deck of the Turners Falls Bridge, adjacent to Turners Falls Dam. There, often for months on end, what they’ll see is the hollowed-out heart of New England’s Great River–a waterless chasm, or one teased by just a trickle from the power company’s dam. Conversely, when rain or snow send more river downstream than can be profitably sent through FirstLight’s power canal or stored upstream for their Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, those spill gates open wide–producing violent, see-sawing flows few fish can fight or follow.

Meanwhile a 200 million year-old evolutionary gem, the Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, remains all but abandoned just downstream–teetering on the verge of extinction for decades. Likewise, American shad can’t move upstream in the river here at all. They’re forced into that turbine-lined power canal where less than 1-in-10 will emerge alive beyond the dam. And those blueback herring–protected on paper as a “federal trust” species, have not been counted here in almost a decade. Just 20 years back they passed by the thousands.

That plastic salmon, showcased for decades as the darling of this river’s fisheries restoration, has been extinct here since 1809. It should not be presented as a living native fish. In science, extinct isn’t subject to interpretation.

That trophy-sized model derives from a massive hybrid hatchery program created by cross-breeding salmon imported from Canadian and northern New England rivers. For 43 years federal and state fish farms produced the millions of tiny fry dumped into the river each spring. Those fish factories repeatedly proved vectors for the potential spread of disease throughout the river system. Though those tiny fish proved great for public relations, no spawning population of engineered salmon ever took hold.

Hybrid salmon became the red herring that masked the massively broken ecosystem that exists on an eight-mile stretch of New England’s Great River from the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station to the tailrace of the Turners Falls Power Canal. Those salmon were the stand-ins for agencies including the National Marine Fisheries Service, the USFWS, and MA Division of Fish & Wildlife that had failed to protect living migratory species here–and an ecosystem suffocating right in their backyard.

The plight of the only state- and federally endangered fish here represents the ultimate failure of responsibilities. Dr. Boyd Kynard spent decades studying the shortnose and documented it’s only natural spawning site–the Rock Dam Pool, less than two miles downstream of Turners Falls Dam. Dam operations there were annually creating conditions that crippled spawning success for the remaining 300 sturgeon still able to reach their ancient rendezvous site.

Kynard’s federal- and state-funded findings were given to fish agencies a decade back. Each bore legal responsibility for that sturgeon. Yet no agency or non-profit stepped-in to monitor and enforce Endangered Species Act protections. None intervened to halt the trickle-and-torrent flows preventing reproduction. That step alone would’ve put living waters back into the river here–aiding the shad and herring attempting to reach Vermont and New Hampshire. Likewise in 2012, when Kynard published a book on the shortnose–documenting its life history and the river conditions necessary for its recovery, again, no one went to court to protect this public legacy.

Had agencies and watchdog groups taken responsibility years back for protecting spawning sturgeon at that Rock Dam Pool below FirstLight’s dam, native migratory fish and the river ecosystem would be in a far better place today. Instead, that work was left to become part of the current studies in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s 5-year relicensing process for the Turners Falls and Northfield hydro sites, where I’m on the Fisheries and Aquatic Studies Team.

Sturgeon spawning is not monitored today. It’s unconscionable to have waited for a 40 year relicensing process to come around before broaching concerns for an endangered fish and broken ecosystem. Hopefully it won’t prove the difference between a living river, and one merely depicted in a museum model.

Greenfield, MA journalist Karl Meyer is participating in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing process for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls hydro sites.

Enron Redux in New England

Posted by on 14 Oct 2014 | Tagged as: Brayton Point coal plant, Cheryl Lafleur, Energy Capital Partners, Enron, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, GDF-Suez FirstLight, Greenfield Recorder, Mt. Tom Coal Plant, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Public Citizen, Rutland Herald, Times Argus

Note: the following piece appeared in September 2014 in the Sunday edition of the Rutland Herald(www.rutlandherald.com); the Times-Argus in Montpelier, VT(www.times-argus.com),  and The Recorder in Greenfield, MA(www.recorder.com).

Copyright © 2014 by Karl Meyer

ENRON REDUX

Kids: go to your parent’s bedroom and find mommy’s purse and take $110 out of it. Then go out and have some fun. Why? Because the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and its own creation–the Holyoke, MA-based Independent System Operator of New England (ISO-NE), just confirmed that it’s ok to steal. The theft took place in June at a rigged ISO-NE “forward market” energy auction. There, Hartford-based Energy Capital Partners made off with the public’s loot to the tune of $110 from every New England ratepayer, according to consumer watchdog Public Citizen.

In a pre-dawn, September 17th press release, FERC Chair Cheryl LaFleur argued that it was legitimate for corporate-citizen ECP to manipulate the market and pick the pockets of ratepayers from Hartford to Springfield, and Boston and Montpelier—three years in advance. That panicked missive arrived directly on the heels of two FERC Commissioners, Norman Bay and Tony Clark, issuing their own September 16th press release terming the summer ISO-NE ratepayer swindle a “non-competitive auction.” It was a tiny crack in the curtain surrounding FERC decisions. In a split vote, LaFleur and one other Commissioner voted against intervening in the bogus outcome—thus tabling it, and letting the theft stand as legitimate commerce.

Given that, I’m figuring parents would prefer their kids got the cash, rather than a clique of market manipulators. Give your child a head start.

According to Public Citizen, FERC’s failure to intervene will have New Englanders forking out and additional $1.4 billion for the inflated BTU prices ECP manipulated into place for energy to be delivered three winters hence. That, Public Citizen says, will cost each of us over a hundred bucks.

With LaFleur providing the leadership, FERC, our public watchdog on energy projects, rates, regulation and reliability, gave the nod to its puppet-cousin ISO-NE–signaling that its “independent” actions letting ECP game the auction system were acceptable business as usual.

Just like stealing from your parents, Energy Capital Partners was pretty brazen in their market rigging. What they did was purchase an old New England dinosaur, the Brayton Point coal plant in Somerset, MA in 2013. Then, just weeks later, they announced they would be closing Brayton Point–citing environmental and economic constraints. That closure was timed perfectly to influence “forward” market prices. It would take place in May 2017—creating an energy “deficit” timed to show up on the books precisely as the 2017 energy auction was to take place. That staged BTU shortfall caused the spike in prices and accepted forward market bids at ISO-NE’s auction—all to be born at the public’s expense.

ECP will profit handily from their own paper tiger—silent proceeds flowing like electric current to investors, steered directly through ECP’s five other New England venture capital energy plants. That’s how you spike an energy market. It’s the stuff investors gush over.

FERC is charged with ensuring fair pricing for the public, as well as energy reliability in a deregulated market. In its own words its core responsibility is to “guard the consumer from exploitation by non-competitive electric power companies.” It was FERC that created ISO-NE, the regional grid’s independent system operator charged with keeping the lights on in the public’s interest. It’s now clear ISO also referees sham auctions.

Maybe New Englanders won’t mind getting their pockets picked; utility bills are clever at never revealing what you’re actually paying for. But I mind–$110 isn’t chump change to me. I’m worried too that today it’s FERC that’s also overseeing virtually all the controversial energy proposals now swamping the New England region: from mega Northern Pass power lines entering from Canada, to the Tennessee Gas Pipeline, to the relicensing of five large-scale hydro projects on the Connecticut River including the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project.

Curiously, Energy Capital Partners sold the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Plant to GDF-Suez FirstLight Energy over half a decade back. Now it looks like FirstLight may be taking a page out of ECP’s market playbook. They just requested an open-ended and unprecedented “emergency” power uprate and a 20% increase in storage capacity for NMPS, due to a perceived–but as yet undocumented, energy shortfall for the coming winter. What FirstLight withheld in its lengthy application arguments to FERC, was that it is closing down its own 135 megawatt Mt. Tom coal plant in Holyoke this October. Create your own energy deficit. It is also an end-run around environmental relicensing studies set to take place next year. We’ll all pay.

So if you thought “no-bid” government contracts were a thing of the past and that energy market manipulation and wash-through trades were a distant echo of the Enron and Arthur Anderson scandals, think again. Given the pressing concerns of climate change and the dismal record of market manipulation, the time has arrived to re-regulate energy.

Karl Meyer of Greenfield, MA is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Double Standard on the Connecticut

Posted by on 09 Jul 2013 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, ecosystem, EPA, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federal trust fish, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC license, FirstLight, GDF-Suez FirstLight, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Riverkeeper, Rutland Herald, shortnose sturgeon, Times Argus, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont

The following piece appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus during the first week of July.

Copyright © 2013, by Karl Meyer

This is the habitat all upstream migrants are diverted into at Turner Falls

This is the habitat all upstream migrants are diverted into at Turners Falls


                               A River Double Standard

On June 28, 2013, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Director of Energy Projects Jeff C. Wright ruled against the US Fish & 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, MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife, The Connecticut River Watershed Council, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, NH Dept. 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 began 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 fed/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 28th; comments to FERC are due July 15, 2013.  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 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 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 & 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 US EPA found FirstLight in violation of the Clean Water Act in August of 2010 and ordered a massive clean-up, though the ecosystem damage was already done.  In an August 4, 2010 letter EPA sanctioned FirstLight for violating “FERC License No. 2485” and polluting the “navigable waters of the United States.”  A subsequent letter dated August 10, 2013 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, like 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 & 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’ve 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 CT 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, 2013 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, MA. Read more at: www.karlmeyerwriting.com

Mirror to the Past: a legacy of failure at Turners Falls

Posted by on 21 Dec 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Anne Makepeace, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Captain William Turner, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, CRASC, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Dead Reach, didymo, federal trust fish, Jessie Little Doe, Narragansett, Pilgrims, Rock Dam, Rock Snot, Rutland Herald, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, Times Argus, Turners Falls dam, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Wampanoag, William Pynchon

The following essay appeared on the November OpEd pages of the Rutland Herald, Times Argus, Greenfield Recorder, and Daily Hampshire Gazette.

December 21, 2011

Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer     All Rights Reserved

A Mirror to the Past: the legacy of failure at Turners Falls

Some history is worth repeating.  In Deerfield, MA on November 9th I listened as independent filmmaker Anne Makepeace introduced, “We Still Live Here” in a church at a place once called Pocumtuck.  There in 1638, Springfield’s William Pynchon bargained with the Pocumtuck for 500 dirt-cheap bushels of corn—selling it at inflated prices to Connecticut colonists who’d run out of food while warring against the Pequot.  The Pequot massacre at Fort Mystic, as well as Pynchon’s low-ball trading, established a posture toward Native Americans that overran a continent.

But Ms. Makepeace’s documentary displayed a clear sensitivity in depicting the 18-year odyssey of a Wampanoag woman, Jessie Little Doe.  Through vision and genius, a seemingly-everyday working mom has begun reviving the spoken Wampanoag language, last heard over a century ago.  At Mashpee and Gay Head, MA, a bedrock tongue of indigenous North America is again being taught and spoken, where starving Pilgrims first encountered it.

The next evening the Associated Press published a story: ‘Rock Snot’ Fear Means Salmon For Native Tribes.  It told how the disaster of an invasive alga picked up by thousands of hatchery salmon at the US Fish &Wildlife Service’s flooded White River National Fish Hatchery during Tropical Storm Irene was turning into a curious windfall for Native Americans.  The USFWS and Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) had just unanimously voted to give free fish to the Indians.

The headline was unfortunate, sounding like the tribes were being used.  CRASC’s half-billion-dollar CT River salmon restoration had had another dismal year—returning just 106 fish.  The Irene flood was the second million-dollar disaster befalling the White River VT hatchery in 4 years.  Giving a tiny portion of the facility’s half-million surviving fish might play better in the media than advertising a likely fate for most—killing and burying the lot to avoid releasing rock-snot-infested salmon and trout to New England rivers and Great Lakes habitats.

Filed from Montpelier, VT, the story sketched that morning’s CRASC meeting at Turners Falls, MA, once known as Peskeomscut, just 7 miles from Pocumtuck.  It missed some substance an attending reporter might’ve caught–that CRASC Chair Bill Hyatt had become chairman that day; that it was his first meeting ever.  Hyatt’s quotes hit the media so quickly—hours after the meeting, it might appear someone had been spoon fed a cheery “salmon-for-the-Indians” pre-Thanksgiving tale.  But an editor made a good call on its content: rock-snot-means-gift-to-tribes.

On-the-ground reporting might also have uncovered that—just beyond the federal Conte Lab where CRASC meets, sits two miles of beleaguered Connecticut River identified on colonial maps as Peskeomscut.  It’s a delicate place to fashion an ‘Indian-fish-rescue’ story from.  Here on May 19, 1676, Captain William Turner and Hadley-based soldiers surprise-attacked hundreds of sleeping Wampanoags, Narragansetts, Pocumtucks and Nipmucks–largely women, children, and elders. They’d come to rest, plant, and dry-harvest massive blooms of migrating shad, herring, and a knot of spawning shortnose sturgeon.  If time allowed, they’d tap a small, later-arriving salmon run.

Time did not.  This was King Phillips War, their fight for sovereign lands.  Dawn brought the Turners Falls massacre.  Just past Conte Lab’s windows warriors encamped at the ancient fishing-island today called Rock Dam counterattacked–routing and killing 37, including Captain Turner.

This day, 335 years later, it was noted that half the hatchery’s 8,000, two-to-four year old salmon, the small ones, could likely be released to already didymo-infected rivers.  Regulations would prevent any sale.  Still, all remaining baby salmon, plus 500,000 didymo-infected lake trout still faced a quick landfill burial before the hatchery could be flushed with chlorine.  They could not be released for anglers—and way back in 2004 the USFWS Region 5 actually issued a consumer advisory on eating hatchery salmon.  Those remaining 4,000 larger salmon, some to 9-1/2 lbs., might also have had to be killed and land-filled–had they not found someone to take them…

CRASC, charged with protecting all of the river’s migratory fish species, unanimously voted to donate those big fish—killed, gutted and iced, to any federally tribe who’d take them.  It might be a PR coup for the disastrous restoration, buffering perceptions away from the millions lost producing ten dozen salmon returns annually.  As with the Pilgrims, Pynchon and William Turner, the Indians had not come calling: USFWS had.  Region 5’s William Archambault noted, “We reached out to the federal tribes.” Ironically, that included the Wampanoag and Narragansett.

I hope all fully understood that in accepting fish they did USFWS a huge favor.  They should also know the embattled 2-mile reach of river they know as Peskeomscut remains today a desolate place.  There, USFWS and CRASC have abandoned spawning federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon and beleaguered American shad to the excesses of a for-profit power company.  Certainly they know that Jessie Little Doe was awarded a MacArthur genius grant in 2010.  “We Still Live Here” premiered nationwide on November 17th, funded in part by WGBY in Springfield, MA.

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