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CASHING IN ON A CASH COW

Posted by on 15 Jan 2016 | Tagged as: American shad, climate change, Connecticut River, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Daily Hampshire Gazette, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, Energy Capital Partners, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, FERC, FirstLight, fossil plant, GDF-Suez FirstLight, ISO, ISO New England, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NMFS, NOAA, non-renewable, Northfield Mountain, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, Rock Dam, shortnose sturgeon, The Greenfield Recorder, The Pioneer, The Recorder, Turners Falls dam, Uncategorized, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont

The following piece appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette(www.gazettenet.com) and the Recorder(www.recorder.com) in the first week of January 2016.

CASHING IN ON A CASH COW

Copyright © 2015 by Karl Meyer

Ever dreamed of owning your own bank? I got a deal for you! Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project is for sale again, along with the Turners Falls canal and dam—and a string of little assets down in Connecticut. But Northfield’s the cash cow. Fourth time in a decade they’re unloading this golden calf–always at a tidy chunk of change. A quickie corporate win-win! It’s really like an A.T.M., run at the expense of the Connecticut River ecosystem.

Place works like a giant toilet–suck huge amounts of the river backward and uphill, then flush it all back and—viola, money spews out the other end. Could be ours! They’re holding bidder tours as we speak. I just need a few partners with ready credit. We go in on short-money and cash-in on the no-brainer electricity “spot market” for a few years. Then, with inflated power-price futures in play, we offload this puppy for a final cash-out of 30%–maybe 50%!

Here’s how it goes down. With the cheerleading of Northfield’s not-so-silent partner, ISO New England–the “independent” system operator (created by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), we simply slow dance this darlin’ past the banks, the FTC and FERC. Then, in 2016, its sweet business-as-usual—maybe with new shirts for employees.

Trust me, this works every time. Everyone walks away with full pockets—without the public knowing what hit them. Northfield got wholesaled in 2006 by Northeast Generations Services(formerly WMECO—formerly of Northeast Utilities, now Eversource—you follow?) They grabbed a quick $1.34 billion for the package, slipping it to a trio of Jersey venture capitalists, Energy Capital Partners. ECP renamed their little project FirstLight Energy. Those smartest-guys-in-the-room hung-in and grabbed Northfield’s peaking spot-market profits for two years, before off-loading it for a nifty $1.89 billion in that crazy year, 2008.

With that, GDF-Suez, third owner in four years, swept in–the world’s largest private energy corporation, based in France. They’ve been gobbling up contracts to run water systems across the US under the name Suez United Water. But GDF-Suez recently did a clever name-change to Engie, keeping the public totally confused. They got game! The true costs of these premium-priced plant sales get buried in the list of acronyms on electric bills. It’s like owning a 25-mile stretch the Connecticut River to dip into for cash any time you please.

This is a turn-key operation–with us, the new guys, pushing the buttons. The joke is that the public thinks Northfield is a hydropower operation, while this baby has never produced a single watt of its own energy. It’s imported!–huge swatches of bulk electricity now run-in from outside the region to suck a mountain’s worth of flow from the Connecticut up to a reservoir. Then, dump it out on the power lines when prices peak. It’s hugely inefficient, now largely carbon-based—and massively damaging to the river. But amazingly profitable!

That’s where we come in. Sure it was built as a sister to the region’s nukes to gobble up their monstrous stream of unused electricity–because nukes can’t shut down their feverish output at night. That’s how you get to put in a giant straw and suck the Connecticut uphill at a rate of 15,000 cubic feet per second–more than enough to pull the river backward for a mile downstream under low flow conditions. But who’s watching? When the region’s last nuke shut down, nobody said ‘boo!’ with Northfield going fossil. What climate change?

And when it became clear years back that Northfield operations were imperiling spawning success for the federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon at the Rock Dam in Turners Falls–their singular natural spawning site going back into pre-history, again, nobody came forward. Not the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service or the MA Division of Fish & Wildlife—or any river protection group. No bureaucrats, no suits–nobody. At Turners Falls—instead of 70% of migratory fish heading upstream toward Vermont and New Hampshire, they squeeze out 4%. We have it made!

Still skeptical? ISO and FERC are addicted to Northfield—even though its power-flush characteristics might come into play maybe a handful of times a year, if at all. For this they let owners cash in on the river whenever y they want. In 2012, the owners of this “asset” collection of 1500 megawatts(of which over 1100 MW derived from Northfield alone) told investors a full 40% of their profits were realized from “Capacity Fees.” What that means is you get paid for holding back the Connecticut! They’re not required to use it at all if they don’t want to—just flush when prices are high. Paid for being you! Of course another 50% of profit comes from generating, though the public doesn’t know it only operates a few hours a day when prices are highest.

Here’s the kicker: in 2014, after a cry-wolf energy deficit winter that never materialized, FERC–with ISO as cheerleader, sanctioned the doubling of those “capacity fees”. Plants are now collecting 2X the amount they were two years back, for having the potential to dump some power on the lines—not for actually generating. Paid for being you! With 1100 potential megawatts at Northfield, how quick can you say “windfall at the public’s expense?” Lastly, Northfield petitioned FERC the last two winters to increase its reservoir storage by a full 25%, with ISO their biggest cheerleader. FERC agreed, twice. Double-dip with a cherry, anyone?

This thing’s a cinch! Even with all the nukes shut—when this should have been moth-balled to emergency use as more climate-warming, spent nuclear junk, it soldiers on as a virtual river monopoly with the blessings of FERC and ISO. Trust me, no one goes to court. Ecosystem damage, costs to the public? Fuggetaboutit!

Got credit? Give a call!

THE “BIG GAME” PROSECUTION of RYAN MCCULLOUGH: another red herring in a failing Connecticut River restoration

Posted by on 19 Jan 2012 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, didymo, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, federal trust fish, FERC license, FirstLight, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Reservoir, Pioneer Valley News, Rock Dam, salmon, salmon hatchery, shad, shortnose sturgeon, The Pioneer, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, USFWS, Walpole

© Copyright 2012 by Karl Meyer    All Rights Reserved

The “big game” prosecution of Ryan McCulough: another red herring in a failing Connecticut River restoration

(NOTE: the following article first appeared in The Pioneer, January 5, 2012, available now on free newsstands from Springfield, MA to Bellows Falls, VT.   Find it online at: www.pioneervalleynews.com )

Legend has it a reporter once asked career criminal Willy Sutton, aka Slick Willie, to explain his long history of thefts, “Willy, why do you rob banks?”  Sutton, a master of disguise, purportedly answered in terms as honest as a crisp January day: “Because that’s where the money is.”

At criminal proceedings in a jtrial scheduled for January 12, 2012 in State Superior Court at Windsor, VT, accused Atlantic salmon poacher Ryan McCullough will likely be asked why he was fishing downstream of the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s White River National Fish Hatchery(WRNFH) last July 25th.  With the Connecticut River and a failed migratory fish restoration looming as backdrop, I’m hoping McCullough replies with a similar bit of direct irony: “Because that’s where they make the fish.”

Last August a hatchery-bred Atlantic salmon created in controlled environs at the White River hatchery in Bethel, VT, was traced via a receiver to a radio-tag blipping away in the freezer of a nearby home.  That tag, hidden inside a 31-inch, 9-1/2 lb. salmon, landed the 22 year-old fisherman in hot water.  McCullough, an aspiring fishing guide, contended he mistook the fish for a huge brown trout.  He’s now charged with taking a “big game species” under Vermont fish and wildlife statutes.  Conviction carries a $1,500 fine and a possible 3-year suspension of his hunting and fishing license.

That big game fish McCullough caught was not even remotely connected to a healthy river system.  It was homing back from the sea to an artificial environment only a factory fish would recognize as habitat—the climate-controlled conduits of WRNFH.  That aqua-culture facility is part of a 19th century industrial idea: factory production substituted for a working ecosystem under the 44-year old banner of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRACS)’s Connecticut River migratory fish “restoration.”

The fly-fishing community was abuzz about this incident.  Yet the only “wild” thing about that salmon was its public perception.  It had been conceived at the hands of humans.  The egg and milt (sperm) that spawned it had been matched up by computer models, those genetic fluids were mingled together in plastic tubs, swirled by human hands.  In that immaculately-sterile conception a tiny fish was produced—one of ten million “fry” that were later flushed into Connecticut River tributaries to swim to the ocean.  Every tiny fish produced and released that year along with the one McCullough was to catch two years later was at least two generations removed from any salmon that had ever tasted the salt sea.

In the months just prior to McCullough’s apprehension fisheries personnel at the Holyoke, MA, fish lift on the Connecticut had intercepted the entire spring salmon “run” from the decades-old, half-billion-dollar-plus effort—still politely referred to as a “restoration.”  They trapped all 107 returning fish.  Of those, all but nine were put in trucks and rushed to sterile, hatchery-lab settings where they were weighed, genetically profiled, vaccinated, quarantined, had their fins clipped, and tissue samples taken.  All would ultimately be needed as breeding “stock” for next years dump of millions of “state-farmed” salmon babies into Connecticut River tributaries.

However, ensuing developments at White River will make it interesting to see if Vermont Fish & Wildlife continues in its attempt to make an example of Ryan McCullough.  Tragically and ironically, WRNFH was all but washed away by Tropical Storm Irene just weeks after he was brought up on poaching charges.  A storm surge of White River water entered pools, conduits, wells and buildings throughout the facility—overwhelming well-water fed fish ponds and carrying in the seeds of didymo, aka Rock Snot.  Didymo is an easily-spread invasive alga that was discovered upstream of the hatchery 3 years back.  It smothers river bottom habitats.

Suddenly, tiny salmon fry and over a half-million surviving hatchery fish had become potential carriers of a Rock Snot plague–if they were to be spread in the annual truck-and-dispersal system into Connecticut tributaries and the lakes and streams of four New England states.  Annual production costs alone for five salmon hatcheries around New England can reach a million bucks per facility.  Mistakes and the necessity for new “bio-security” protocols and upgrades repeatedly send costs skyrocketing.  And, after 44 years of trying to create a new strain of cold-loving salmon on the southern-most river it ever colonized, the number of hybrid salmon returning to a warming Connecticut River averages between 40 -100 fish.

A quick damage estimate by USFWS for White River was put at between $10 – 14 million.  But the hatchery would have to be “depopulated;” then sterilized, before any rebuilding could start.  They’d likely have to kill and landfill half a million fish, including hatchery trout and salmon.  Desperate to put a good spin on this second million-dollar disaster at WRNFH in 3 years, USFWS and CRASC scrambled to find a feel-good PR angle.

Ultimately they “reached out” to federally-recognized Native American tribes, inquiring if they would like a “gift” of expensive hatchery salmon—some 8,000 of the table-sized fish were still swimming on site.  Some tribes immediately accepted.  CRASC convened quickly to take a unanimous vote legalizing the “donation.”  They then began killing, gutted and icing the largest salmon, happy to pass them along to indigenous peoples of the Northeast.  Within hours of that vote, CRASC’s feel-good ‘fish-to-the-Indians’ story hit the media via the Associated Press.

Ironically, the 600 largest of those choice “gift” salmon were near replicas–in size and weight (30 inches, 9 lbs), to the fish Ryan McCullough sits accused of poaching months earlier.  But at this point it appears the angler can mount a pretty decent defense.  Back in July he’d actually let a local paper photograph him holding his prize “brown trout” prior to placing it in that freezer.  Though the photo showed a fish appearing to have the slightly hooked lower jaw of a “cock” salmon–that PR move would have been a hugely naïve bit of bravado, something a knowing, and aspiring, fishing guide would never do.  His supporters, including fish and game people, contend he simply may have made a rookie mistake.

Curiously, if he’d purchased a MA fishing license and landed a tagged salmon there, the Bay State penalty would have been akin to a parking ticket: $50 – $100.  Why??  MA doesn’t have a hard classification for exactly what these hybrid fish are.  They aren’t considered a native Connecticut River migratory fish in MA, where the Connecticut’s minor salmon strain has also been extinct for over 200 years.  This is also likely the reason there isn’t a federal prosecution looming for McCullough.  Connecticut River Atlantic salmon are officially classified as “extirpated” by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.  To prosecute him they’d have to hold a monkey trial with a hybrid fish at its center, a spectacle Darwin himself would shake his head at. Considering the fish give-away status at the WRNFH–and the endlessly-failed Connecticut River salmon restoration program, Vermont is going to look foolish if they don’t let young Ryan McCullough off the hook.

But the Green Mountain State has long had a blind spot about all other native migratory fish on the Connecticut save for extinct salmon.  Fisheries officials there long-ago staked Vermont’s idea of pristine environments and elite sport fishing on the creation of a new salmon strain to replace one not seen since 1809.  Decades later, Vermont anglers, as well as those just across the river in New Hampshire, are left without a nifty shad run anglers could be tapping into all the way to Bellows Falls and Walpole.  They get no fish at all, save spawned-out hatchery lunkers dumped into local lakes as salmon program PR (*USFWS Region 5 put out an official advisory on consuming hatchery salmon way back in 2004).  Meanwhile, their rivers and tributaries face the ongoing specter of new and potentially-catastrophic emerging fish diseases being spread through hatchery operations in a time of warming climates.

The full ironies of last summer’s comedy of errors become even more apparent looking just south of the Vermont/New Hampshire border to the federal Conte Fish Lab where CRASC meetings are held beside the dead stretch of Connecticut River in Turners Falls, MA.  CRASC and USFWS are responsible for all the “federal trust” migratory fish on the Connecticut including blueback herring, American shad, and federally endangered shortnose sturgeon.  Yet there, state and federal fish guardians continue to ignore the river’s most-critical 2-1/2 mile chasm—one that’s been key to migratory fish restoration to Vermont and New Hampshire for decades.

Thirty years ago VT and NH should’ve begun crying foul due to the lack of accommodating flows and a fish elevator (still yet to be built) directly upstream at Turners Falls dam.  Implementing those proven remedies–required under federal and state license regulations for migratory fish to reach upstream waters, would long ago have revived those “dead reach” flows during spawning season—concurrently providing easy upstream passage for very fishable runs of American shad all the way to Walpole, NH and Bellows Falls, VT.  Today, the Connecticut’s federal trust run of American shad expires in the dead reach below Turners Falls dam, deflected into the treacherous environs of a power canal.  For decades now VT and NH anglers have been denied fishing for what would’ve amounted to millions of 3 – 6 lb. shad, a tasty catch that makes for excellent fishing in anyone’s book.

Today, funded in part by FirstLight-GDF-Suez, (the global power company manipulating pulses sent downriver from their Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, and flows diverted into their Turners Falls Power Canal) USFWS, CRASC, and federal Conte lab researchers continue ignoring the devastation to migrating and spawning river fish from company flow regimes.  In deference to FirstLight’s preferences, annual agency studies continue emphasizing sending migrating fish into miserable habitats, cross currents, and slicing turbines of the Turners Falls Power Canal.  Meanwhile, virtually next door to the federal Conte Fish Lab, federal trust American shad runs and whole season’s production of eggs and young from the river’s only spawning population of federally-endangered shortnose whither in a dying reach of river annually.

Perhaps most shameful of all is that there is virtually no federal enforcement or prosecution for the year-in, year-out, damage to those federally endangered sturgeon.  US Endangered Species Act protections are wholly ignored for this population, which measures only in the hundreds.  The beleaguered two-mile reach behind the federal Conte Lab has served as their historic mating ground for untold centuries.

Annually, successful shortnose sturgeon spawning in this reach occurs less than half of the time.  Much of the loss is preventable, and could be stemmed in large part by enforcing environmental statutes that would quell the punishing effects of the water pulses and parching trickles sent downstream by Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls dam operators toward an ancient, low escarpment in the river known as the Rock Dam.  Shortnose sturgeon have spawned at this site since before well before Columbus sailed.

More losses arise from the company’s spawning-season water diversions into—and out of, the Turner Falls Power Canal.  That flow can be, alternately, either so strong, or so halting, that it can stop an entire season’s worth of sturgeon mating dead in its tracks.  Or, those same vacillating pulses will either wash downstream, or strand, a season’s worth of tiny sturgeon embryos–leaving them to decay beneath the silt, or desiccate on barren riverbanks.  Either way, a year’s worth of endangered shortnose sturgeon production regularly gets sideswiped to oblivion.

The penalty to an individual for catching, killing or interfering with a federally endangered shortnose sturgeon is up to a year in jail, and a $100,000 dollar fine per instance.  That penalty is increased to $200,000 for corporations, which seems a bit out of balance.  Right at Turners Falls–adjacent to the US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab and just downstream from the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Great Falls Discovery Center, there is documented evidence of annual damage to the Connecticut River’s only spawning population of endangered shortnose sturgeon, yet here no one is being dragged into court…

At the November 10, 2011 CRASC meeting in Turners Falls, USFWS’s Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle announced the outlines and some preliminary observations from a multi-year American shad migration study he’s begun.  With assistance, Sprankle caught and radio-tagged over a hundred shad, some at the mouth of the Connecticut, some at the Holyoke fish lift.  This allowed him to track their movements via receivers placed along the river as they made their upstream runs.  Partly funded by FirstLight Power, federal Conte Lab researcher Dr. Ted Castro-Santos partnered on the Sprankle study.  Castro-Santos was the point person responsible for siting receivers along the river from downstream of the Turners Falls Power Canal up to the Vernon dam in Vermont.

Sprankle termed the undertaking a “whole river study for shad,” one that would help in understanding how they use the river in migration.  He further noted that Dr. Castro-Santos had placed radio receivers throughout FirstLight’s Turners Falls Power Canal.  At that point I asked how many receivers had been set up in the “actual river bed”—referring to the Connecticut’s embattled, 2-mile “dead reach” just beyond Conte Labs west windows.  As expected, he answered that none were in place to monitor that section or river.  It’s remains the river’s missing link.

Thus, from the foot of the Turners Falls canal to the base of Turners Falls dam, Sprankle and Castro-Santos will have no data on shad movement in a critical river reach.  I pointed out to Sprankle that the undertaking could not then be considered a bona fide “whole river study for shad.”  This is decidedly a broken river study—missing the miles of streambed where a river’s ocean-connected ecosystem dies.  I further observed that the section Castro-Santos has chosen to monitor promotes a power “canal restoration”—a configuration that has failed for the past 40 years, and one that let’s the power company wholly off the hook in terms of sustainable flows for federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon and working, direct, upstream fish passage for federal trust American shad.

Ryan McCullough is scheduled to appear on Thursday, January 12, 2011, in Room 1 of Vermont Superior Court in Windsor at 9:00 a.m.  He is pleading not guilty to the charge of knowingly taking a “big game species” and has chosen to be tried by jury, represented by attorny Jordanna Levine.