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CRC comments on the Fiske Mill hydroelectric project (P-8615) Preliminary Application Document and study requests


March 29, 2021


Honorable Kimberly D. Bose Secretary

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

888 First Street, NE

Washington, DC 20426


Re: CRC comments on the Fiske Mill hydroelectric project (P-8615) Preliminary Application Document and study requests


Dear Secretary Bose,


The Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC), is a nonprofit citizen group established in 1952 to advocate for the protection, restoration, and sustainable use of the Connecticut River and its four-state watershed.  The interests and goals represented by CRC include, but are not limited to, improving water quality; enhancing habitat for fish and other aquatic biota; safeguarding and improving wildlife habitat; protecting threatened and endangered species; protecting wetlands; preserving undeveloped shore lands; enhancing public recreation and promoting recreational safety; protecting aesthetic values; protecting archeological, cultural, and historical resources; fostering sustainable economic development; and maintaining the potential energy benefits of ecologically sound hydroelectric projects in the Connecticut River watershed.


CRC attended the Joint Agency and Public meeting on January 29, 2021 and has reviewed the Pre-Application Document for Exemption from Licensing, dated November 25, 2020. Please consider our comments and requests for studies below.


General Comments

The PAD states that Power Pool LLC is in “good standing.”[1] Based on a quick search of the NH Secretary of State website this does not appear to be correct.[2] CRC assumes that this is probably the result of a minor infraction, but it should be corrected.


The applicant provides a paragraph on page 21 describing indigenous use of the river.  The link to the reference at https://www.des.nh.gov/organization/divisions/water/wmb/rivers/ash_river.htm is not working.  Can Fiske Mill provide the correct link?  Was this description meant to be in the Fisheries section or should it have been placed under Historic Properties?


The PAD states that, “there is no formal project boundary associated with this minor project”[3] yet there is an Exhibit G providing a map of the project boundary.  Additionally, the applicant suggests that the impoundment extends upstream approximately 1,800 feet, but the Exhibit G boundary map reflects a distance of approximately 1,500 feet.  Please clarify the extent of the impoundment and the ecological or project related justification that defines the upper end of the impoundment.


The PAD states that, “Total flow capacity of the turbines, including the proposed fifth turbine, at the Fiske Mill site (910 cfs) is exceeded 23 percent of the time.”[4] This seems to have been taken from the previously amended application to increase electrical generation to 910 cfs – as opposed to an anticipated total flow capacity of 884 cfs as proposed in the current application.  This percent exceedance should be corrected.


In the PAD, the applicant references only the following water quality data, “Water quality parameters measured in August 1989, by the New Hampshire Water Quality Division in the project area indicated that DO was 9 mg/l and pH was 7 standard units.”[5] This was clearly copied from the 1990 amended license information and is too old to be of use.  A quick search of the NH DES website shows that NH Department of Environmental Services and the Ashuelot River Local Advisory Committee have been testing the water quality adjacent to Fiske Mill for many parameters in the intervening years.  While we note that the 2019 sampling results from the NH Volunteer River Assessment Program is included as Attachment A, the PAD should provide more comprehensive information about water quality data that has been collected above and below the project site.


Timing of Studies in Relation to Needed Repairs


Fiske Mill has been operating significantly under its nameplate capacity for several years due to the collapse of one of the penstocks.  It is not clear from the Notice of Intent or PAD when Fiske Mill intends to fix the penstock and upgrade the turbines and how studies would be timed in relation to this repair work. CRC contends that due to the need to make these repairs, any habitat, water quality, flow, entrainment and impingement, and fish passage studies should be delayed until after the repairs are done to have reliable results.  Any studies done under the current circumstances are not properly reflective of how the facility will be operating when returned to a fully operating condition.


Economic Considerations


Of additional concern is the economics of limited revenue because of reduced generation combined with expenses related to project repairs and additional expenses that will occur as part of the relicensing process. CRC is concerned about the current limited electricity generated by this facility and whether the cost to the ecosystem is currently justified.  Potential increases in electrical generation may justify some minor ecological impacts, but CRC has concerns about the feasibility of completing repairs and facility upgrades in addition to the cost to carry out relicensing studies while the facility is generating limited revenue.  The exemption for this facility should only be issued if it can be clearly shown that the project is economically viable in the face of these significant obstacles.


Section 10(c) of the FPA requires licensees to ‘‘maintain the project works in a condition of repair adequate for… the efficient operation of said works in the development and transmission of power, . . . make all necessary renewals and replacements, . . . establish and maintain adequate depreciation reserves for such purposes…’’[6]


Additionally, based on significant dam safety issues, FERC has recently issued a “Notice of Inquiry: Financial Assurance Measures for Hydroelectric Projects” (NOI – Jan. 26, 2021) which states, “In rare cases, the Commission has also included a requirement to file a financial assurance plan. The financial assurance article requires licensees to submit a plan that identifies the costs of project facilities that would be removed, secured in-place, or otherwise modified to ensure public safety, as well as other measures needed to protect environmental resources, in the event the licensee cannot complete project construction [emphasis added] or is unable to operate the project once construction is complete. After approval of the financial assurance plan and before beginning ground disturbing activities, the licensee must obtain a bond or equivalent financial instrument to ensure the licensee has the economic means to implement the plan. The licensee is also required to file annual reports to document that the bond or equivalent financial instrument remains in effect for the ensuing year.”[7]


Further the NOI states, “Commission has seen increasing numbers of projects that are nonoperational or out of compliance with their license conditions, where licensees have stated that they cannot afford to operate or maintain the projects or implement required environmental or safety measures. Commission staff regularly works with these licensees to bring these projects back into operation or compliance, but only with mixed success.”[8]


Given the growing concern over the financial stability and the aging of our hydro-power assets, and the complexity of extensive repairs needed at the Fiske Mill project in the midst of a relicensing process, CRC requests that a Cost Benefit Analysis of Continued Generation in Relation to Ecosystem and Repair Costs study be done to ascertain if the electric generation currently provided by the Fiske Mill Hydro-power facility is justified when balanced against habitat costs, whether the repairs and capital improvements are feasible, and whether expected generation would provide a return on investment that would maintain the viability of the project. 


This study may be combined with a decommissioning study to identify the cost of decommissioning the project if upgrades are not economically feasible. See requested Study 1 in Attachment A.

 

Recreational Resources


The applicant states that based on a letter from FERC dated October 3, 1997 the licensee was exempted from filing the Form 80 because there were no recreational facilities associated with the project.  The decision to waive requirement of the Form 80 twenty years ago does not waive the examination of recreational needs under this relicensing process.  Since then, FERC has stopped requiring the Form 80 altogether.  That action does not imply a complete waiver of any recreational requirements for mitigation through a relicensing process. 18 CFR Part 2s § 2.7 requires licensees to: “(1) acquire lands to assure optimum development of the recreational resources afforded by the project; (2) develop suitable public recreational facilities with adequate public access, considering the needs of physically handicapped persons in the design of facilities and access; (3) coordinate efforts with other agencies in the development of recreation areas and facilities; (4) provide for planning, operation, and maintenance of these facilities; and (5) inform the public of opportunities for recreation at licensed projects.”[9]


The PAD states that, “the river segment below the project to its confluence with the Connecticut River is rural in nature. The area above the Project’s impoundment ,i.e. the former site of the McGoldrick dam and upstream are used for personal boating…”[10]

Since the last relicensing of this project portage trails have been developed at two upstream dams and the McGoldrick and Winchester dams have been removed.  The Ashuelot River has become a nationally recognized river for whitewater recreation with Class II to Class IV whitewater reaches in the 13 miles above Fiske Mill Dam. 


Below the Fiske Mill dam there is another 1.6 miles until the confluence with the Connecticut River. Currently there is no portage trail around Fiske Mill Dam and it remains an impediment to on-water navigation.


The Fiske Mill Dam is in the center of downtown Hinsdale, with parking and easy access to the downstream section for fishing. The PAD also provides information about the 21-mile long Ashuelot River Recreation Trial which runs adjacent to the river and project.


While there may be constraints to providing recreational enhancements directly on the Fiske Mill site, the presence of the dam nevertheless provides an obstacle to navigation and this impact to recreation should be mitigated for under the new license.  CRC asserts that mitigation of project impacts is not limited by the project boundary.  The project boundary is set to identify where the impacts of the operation are. If needed, the project boundary can be adjusted to accommodate mitigation requirements. In addition, other relicensing processes have provided recreational enhancements off-site as mitigation for project impacts. [11]


CRC reiterates that waiving the requirement to provide a Form 80 under a previous license is not related to the consideration of mitigating for impacts to recreation under a relicensing process. CRC would expect Fiske Mill to provide some mitigation in exchange for obstacle to recreation and to identify the most appropriate mitigation effort, Fiske Mill should conduct a Recreation Survey/ Assessment. Please see requested Study 2 in Attachment A.

 

Fish and Fisheries Habitat


Five separate hydro-electric facilities on the Connecticut River are currently undergoing relicensing (P-1889 Turners Falls Dam, P-2485 Northfield Mountain Pump Storage Facility, P-1904 Vernon, P-1855 Bellows Falls, and P-1892 Wilder), two of which, P-1889 and P-2485, are downstream of the confluence of the Ashuelot River with the Connecticut.  All these facilities will be changing operations and enhancing up and downstream fish passage over the coming few years.


The Fiske Mill project is the first obstacle on the Ashuelot River for the upstream migration of important Connecticut River migratory fish. According to the NH Wildlife Action Plan[12], the Ashuelot River is important for the restoration of American Shad and American Eel.  Additionally, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and CRC have both surveyed and found an abundant number of active sea lamprey nests in the Lower Ashuelot River.


CRC supports any studies that may be requested by resource agencies to evaluate effectiveness of upstream and downstream passage for American Shad and American Eel, spawning habitat assessments in the project area for sea lamprey and American shad, freshwater mussel surveys, and studies to assess the presence of tesselated darter (Etheostoma olmstedi), Johnny darter (E. nigrum), and mottled sculpin (Cottus bairdi), as host fish for mussels.


It is important that studies done for the Fiske Mill project be comprehensive and properly scoped to anticipate potential changes to flows in the Connecticut River, expected upgrades to fish passage and subsequent changes to the number of migratory fish accessing the lower Ashuelot River for spawning habitat.


We appreciate the opportunity to provide comments. I can be reached at kurffer@ctriver.org or (802) 258-0413.


Sincerely,


Kathy Urffer

River Steward


CC:

Cameron McLeod, Fiske Mill Hydro

Paul Nolan

Gregg Comstock, NH DES

Matthew Carpenter, NH Fish and Game

Melissa Grader, USF&WS

William McDavitt, NOAA

Barbara Skuly, Ashuelot River Local Advisory Committee

Rich Holschuh, Atowi

Hinsdale Conservation Commission


ATTACHMENT A: STUDY REQUESTS

Requested Study 1:  Cost Benefit Analysis of Continued Generation in Relation to Ecosystem and Repair Costs

Conduct a study of the economic analysis of the return on investment and limited electricity generated by this facility and whether the costs to the ecosystem are justified by this current limited generation and expected capital costs and feasibility of expected repairs and upgrades.  Methodology could include a Return on Investment (ROI) of capital costs of needed repairs and generation capacity increases; potential increases to recreational economy of adjacent towns with an un-obstructed river; potential economics of ecosystem benefits of an un-obstructed river; develop a cost estimate for decommissioning if expected repairs and turbine upgrades are not financially feasible; as well as other economic considerations.


Goals and Objectives

  • To determine if the ROI for project repairs and upgrades are feasible and reasonable to justify ecological impacts from a continued license;

  • To determine if project generation is justified in relation to the impact to the river;

  • To determine economic impact of this facility as obstacle to recreation;

  • Develop a cost estimate of decommissioning to consider this as an alternative to relicensing.

Resource Management Goals


Cost/benefit analysis of impacts to river and whether local and natural resource impacts are justified by limited generation. Noted that requester is not an agency or Indian tribe.


Public Interest 


FERC Licensing Guidance indicates that economic studies should address:

  • sources of economic information assumed such as fuel costs, escalation rates, growth rates in peak demand, and existing and planned generating resources;

  • feasibility of financing a proposed project modification based upon the size of the economic benefits and the forecasted project revenues;

  • estimate of the net present value of the project;

  • capital and operations and maintenance costs of project modifications and all proposed protection, mitigation, and enhancement measures; and

  • an estimate of the cost to prepare the license application 18 CFR 4.41(e)(9); 18 CFR 4.51(e)(9); 18 CFR 4.61(c)(9).

Sections 4(e) and 10(a) of the Federal Power Act require the Commission to give equal consideration to all uses of the waterway on which a project is located, and what conditions should be placed on any license that may be issued.  As indicated in the FERC Policy Statement on Project Decommissioning at Relicensing, “The more likely scenario is one in which the Commission is required to condition a new power license with environmental mitigation measures, and the licensee is unwilling to accept the license tendered. The licensee may prefer to take the project out of business, because the costs of doing business have become too high. There is no merit to the suggestion by some industry commenters that a condition in a power license is per se unreasonable if, as a result of imposing the condition, the project is no longer economically viable. The statute calls for a balancing of various development and nondevelopment interests, and those commenters’ position would elevate power and other development interests far above the environmental concerns. It would mean that severe environmental damage would have to be accepted in order to protect even a very marginal hydropower project. The Commission does not read the Federal Power Act to compel such a result.”[13]


Existing Information


Existing cost of road infrastructure issues should be accessible by contacting adjacent towns.  Similar sized dams have been removed in Vermont in recent years and those costs are accessible through the VT DEC and NGOs.


Nexus to Project Operations and Effects


The Federal Power Act requires the Commission to give equal consideration to all uses of the waterway on which a project is located, and what conditions should be placed on any license that may be issued. Given the current marginal generation at this facility, it is in the best interest of the public to have a clear economic analysis of the feasibility of increases to electrical generation as compared project impacts in order to weigh the benefits of this limited generation against impacts to the waterway and surrounding communities.


Methodology Consistent with Accepted Practice


The proposed study would be conducted by developing an environmental cost benefit analysis to consider habitat and societal costs and compare these costs and impacts to the ROI of capital improvements to increase generation. This is an accepted methodology for this type of study.


Level of Effort/Cost, and Why Alternative Studies will not suffice


Cost for this study is estimated to be low.  Conducting this study at the outset of relicensing will help Fiske Mill to clarify whether continued investment in this facility is warranted.


Requested Study 2:  Recreation Survey/Assessment


Conduct a study of the recreational boating, fishing, and birding opportunities at the dam, as well as upstream and downstream of the dam to determine if changes or improvements can be made to enhance recreational opportunities.  Methodology should include using on-site visitor questionnaires and a mailed and/ or emailed questionnaire to residents of the neighboring towns to assess recreation use and needs at the project.  The applicant should coordinate information gathering with the Town of Hinsdale Planning Department and Department of Parks and Recreation as to useful recreational enhancements that could result through a partnership. The study should also include an assessment of possible enhancements of ADA compliant fishing access in the project area.


Goals and Objectives


  • To determine if project operations impact recreational opportunities;

  • To determine current use of project area for recreation;

  • Assess if there are modifications to the project or additional off-site enhancements which could improve fishing, birding, boating, or other recreational opportunities.

Resource Management Goals


Enhancement of recreational opportunities associated with the presence and operation of the project, including the dam, impoundment and tailwater areas. Noted that requester is not an agency or Indian tribe.


Public Interest 


Sections 4(e) and 10(a) of the Federal Power Act require the Commission to give equal consideration to all uses of the waterway on which a project is located, and what conditions should be placed on any license that may be issued.  As indicated in the FERC guidance for Recreation Development at Licensed Hydropower Projects,“On December 27, 1965, FERC issued Order No. 313, which amended the General Policy and Interpretations section of the Commission’s regulations (18 CFR Part 2) to ensure that the ultimate development of recreation resources at all projects is consistent with area recreational needs.  Specifically, 18 CFR Part 2 was amended to include § 2.7, which requires licensees to: (1) acquire lands to assure optimum development of the recreational resources afforded by the project; (2) develop suitable public recreational facilities with adequate public access, considering the needs of physically handicapped persons in the design of facilities and access; (3) coordinate efforts with other agencies in the development of recreation areas and facilities; (4) provide for planning, operation, and maintenance of these facilities; and (5) inform the public of opportunities for recreation at licensed projects.”[14]


Existing Information


Fiske Mill obtained an exemption from the requirement to file a Form 80 in 1997. In 2019, the requirement to file Form 80s, which provided some information as to recreational amenities at and investment of hydro power facilities was eliminated as a result of a rule change by the FERC.  In the ensuing 24 years since 1997, numerous changes have occurred to the river and recreational use patterns, including the removal of several dams, creation of upstream portages, and the identification of the Ashuelot River as a white water destination.  Since the licensee is applying for a license exemption,  this will likely be the only opportunity to consider recreational use over the remaining life of this project.


Nexus to Project Operations and Effects


Boaters, anglers, and other recreational users are impeded from access to their public trust waters by hydro-electric dams.  Changes in hydraulic conditions and habitat in the river impacts their ability to use the resources, affects catch rates and species for fish, and creates safety concerns.


Methodology Consistent with Accepted Practice


The proposed study would be conducted by using on-site visitor questionnaires and a mailed and/ or emailed questionnaire to residents of Hinsdale and neighboring towns to collect feedback on perceptions of access to the area, use patterns and local needs.  This is an accepted methodology for this type of study.


Level of Effort/Cost, and Why Alternative Studies will not suffice


Cost for this study is estimated to be low.  This study would provide the current baseline regarding recreational use and would provide insight into the need for and type of potential enhancements.

[1] Pre-Application Document for Exemption from Licensing. Fiske Hydro, Inc. Orange, MA. November 25, 2020. Page 3.

[2] New Hampshire Department of State. Accessed at https://quickstart.sos.nh.gov/online/BusinessInquire/BusinessInformation?businessID=420884 on March 26, 2021.

[3] Pre-Application Document for Exemption from Licensing. Fiske Hydro, Inc. Orange, MA. November 25, 2020. Page 25.

[4] Pre-Application Document for Exemption from Licensing. Fiske Hydro, Inc. Orange, MA. November 25, 2020. Page 27.

[5] Ibid. Page 18.

[6] 16 U.S.C. 803(a).

[7] Notice of Inquiry: Financial Assurance Measures for Hydroelectric Projects” (Jan. 26, 2021)

[8] Ibid.

[9] 18 CFR § 2.7 – Recreational development at licensed projects.

[10] Pre-Application Document for Exemption from Licensing. Fiske Hydro, Inc. Orange, MA. November 25, 2020. Page 9.

[11] See City of Seattle, Washington, 26 FERC ¶ 61406, 61906 (1984) where FERC required off project site recreation facilities.

[12] New Hampshire Fish and Game. NH Wildlife Action Plan. 2015 Revised Edition. Accessed at: https://www.wildlife.state.nh.us/wildlife/wap.html

[13] Project Decommissioning at Relicensing; Policy Statement (December 14, 1994), 18 C.F.R. § 2.24, 60 Fed. Reg. 339 (January 4, 1995), FERC Stats. & Regs. Preambles 1991-1996 ¶ 31,011.

[14] Recreation Development at Licensed Hydropower Projects: Division of Project Compliance and Administration, Office of Hydropower Licensing, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Washington DC. March 1996. Page 1.

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