FirstLight Hydro files recreation agreement with feds

By JULIAN MENDOZA

Staff Writer

Published: 06-15-2023 2:59 PM

TURNERS FALLS — FirstLight Hydro Generating Co. has filed its Recreation Settlement Agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the company announced in a statement Tuesday.

The agreement, part of a comprehensive settlement effort related to FirstLight’s 50-year relicensing negotiations, states it has been “a decade-long process ... to reach consensus on measures to enhance public recreation at the Projects through construction of new recreation sites, upgrades to existing sites, placement of conservation restrictions on lands abutting the Connecticut River and coordinated programmatic efforts to deliver sustained benefits to both residents and visitors to the region.”

The agreement is highlighted by a series of new installations, including new public park spaces with viewing locations and picnic areas, campsites with paddle access, bike trails on Northfield Mountain and river access points. It also pledges to place conservation restrictions on more than 761 acres of land that it owns along the Connecticut River, as well as conduct a comprehensive review of recreation projects every 10 years to evaluate ongoing use and demand.

“As a proud Franklin County business, FirstLight is thrilled to deliver this Recreation Settlement Agreement, the product of extensive collaboration with dozens of stakeholders, that will enhance recreation opportunities, increase accessibility, and deliver new attractions in the region,” Andy Brydges, director of community relations for FirstLight, said in the statement. “We’re grateful for the substantial commitment of time and resources made by the signatories to this Agreement, and we look forward to continued partnership in the future as we work together to generate excitement and activity in Franklin County.”

The Recreation Settlement Agreement can be downloaded online at rb.gy/gyhhi.

FirstLight, which previously submitted its Amended Final License Application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for a new 50-year license, has three facilities up for relicensing — the hydro-pump facility at Northfield Mountain and two hydroelectric dams in Turners Falls. These have been criticized by environmental advocacy groups for impacts on fish, the Connecticut River and surrounding environment.

Signatories to the recreation agreement include FirstLight, the National Park Service, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Franklin Regional Council of Governments, Access Fund, American Whitewater, Appalachian Mountain Club, Crab Apple Whitewater, Inc., New England FLOW, Western Massachusetts Climbers’ Coalition and Zoar Outdoor, as well as the Towns of Erving, Gill, Montague and Northfield. Although all four involved towns voted to sign, officials have collectively expressed ongoing concern regarding both the recreation agreement and the comprehensive settlement process.

Montague Town Administrator Steve Ellis said at a Selectboard meeting on May 8 that some stakeholders initially hesitated to sign off due to concerns regarding “entanglements” with the Recreation and Flows and Fish Passage Agreements. These stakeholders, he said, didn’t feel comfortable signing without being able to continue talks about an erosion settlement, which had been — and still are — at a relative standstill.

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Some also have expressed concern that although the settlement outlines “historical and interpretive cultural signage at key locations in consultation with local Tribes and town officials,” relicensing could still harm the preservation of Indigenous history and culture.

“We have been participating collectively as stakeholders in the relicensing process since early 2013,” reads a letter submitted by Indigenous stakeholders Joe Graveline, David Brule, Liz Coldwind Santana-Kiser and Richard Holschuh. “We intervene on the basis that over the term of the previous license operations, we have witnessed that these projects have … continued to adversely impact the 10,000 years of indigenous cultural history and resources located in the areas of potential effect (APE) covered in this new license approval.”

Officials reasoned that ultimately reaching an agreement was necessary, though, having been engaged in negotiations for more than a decade.

“This is going to have an impact, so I think we need to be reasonable,” Montague Selectboard Chairman Rich Kuklewicz said prior to voting in approval. “These things are never easy … and I think we’ve done the best that we can.”

“Everything’s done in secrecy and nondisclosure and everything’s kind of suspect, in my mind, but … what can you do at this point?” Gill Selectboard Chairman Charles Garbiel said at a June 5 Selectboard meeting, at which the Selectboard voted 2-1 in order to communicate their wariness.

“I’d love to say after 10 years that we’re done talking about this, but yeah, no,” Gill Selectboard member Randy Crochier said. “That ain’t going to be happening that way.”

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-930-4231 or jmendoza@recorder.com.

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