Power Plays

The powers that be and those who manufacture power form a dangerous alliance, one fish, fowl and bipeds should flee, escaping schemers and investors who may yet breathe their fatal fire, its toxic smoke just a balmy breeze away.

First the fish, still struggling to survive, adapting to the industrial cesspools in which they live. Back in the early ‘90s when I was trying to report the truth about Connecticut River Atlantic salmon restoration, not what I was being told by media-relations lackeys and administrators, I embarked on a research mission that taught me much about Pioneer Valley history. After reading many histories of riverside towns from Northfield to Saybrook, Conn., it was easy to conclude that American shad, not Atlantic salmon, were the prevalent fish harvested by settlers each spring into the 19h century. There is no denying salmon were here, thus the salmon rivers and falls up and down the valley. But salmon were a temporary phenomenon, few in number and a welcome bonus among multiple shad hauled from the river in seines. Those salmon were a product of the Little Ice Age, a cooling period between 1550 and 1820 that pushed the North Atlantic salmon range hundreds of miles south following the Medieval Warming Period. It just so happened that this three-century climatic event conducive to New England salmon migration coincided with European settlement of North America. In fact, the New World was discovered by European fishermen chasing cod, their range also pushed south by colder ocean temperatures.

Although I still track our spring anadromous-fish runs, report on them and continue to cast a pessimistic shadow on their future — especially salmon, but now even shad — I have surrendered my No. 1 gadfly status to Karl Meyer, a former employee turned critic of the power companies operating our fish passageways. Also an outspoken critic of a floundering salmon-restoration project, unlike me, Meyer favors an immediate halt to the doomed program. He says it’s a waste of time and energy for white-knuckled fisheries biologists hanging on for dear life and fat paychecks. While I don’t begrudge them those paychecks, you can’t hide the obvious fact that Connecticut River salmon are following the path of dinosaurs and saber-toothed tigers. Sad but true.

Meyer’s latest criticism is aimed at pathetic shad numbers passing through the fish passageways at Turners Falls and Vernon, Vt. (Can you see the glow?). Both locations, in his opinion, aren’t meeting pledges to maintain optimal fish passage. Meyer got all wound up last year when, like a miracle, shad started passing Turners Falls in record numbers while the Northfield Pumped Storage reservoir was drained dry and water was directed to the spillway pool above the Turners Falls dam, pulling shad up the typically little-used spillway ladder, which seems to be more functional than the other two at Turners Falls. Could it have been a coincidence that shad responded with a record run? Meyer didn’t think so, and he’s getting strong confirmation this spring. With Northfield back to normal and shad being drawn to the less the effective Gatehouse  and Cabot ladders, the power company isn’t even releasing migration numbers through Turners Falls. “Curious, eh?” wrote Meyer last week. “Think they have something to hide?”

Yep, probably, but nowhere near as much as the nuke plant just upstream in Vernon, where the next fish-passage station stands. There, anadromous-fish controversy pales in comparison to issues with the nuclear plant itself. A recent “Rolling Stone” piece by Jeff Goodell (“The Fire Next Time,” May 12) used Vermont Yankee as a poster child of dangerous, aging nuke plants that have been unwisely relicensed by the lapdog Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Lap dog? Well, what do you call a watchdog agency that has over the past two decades approved all 63 relicensing requests it’s reviewed? Goodell warns that a natural catastrophe like the Fukushima earthquake or the Joplin tornado (Can you imagine what would have happened if there had been a nuke plant there?) could be worse than devastating, stating: “A release of just one-10th of the radioactive material at the Vermont Yankee reactor could kill thousands and render much of New England uninhabitable for centuries.”

Yet, we still have many among us who defend this plant if for no better reason than to oppose the “loony radicals” protesting for its closure. Could it be any clearer that power companies cannot be trusted, that they are beholden to shareholders, not the environment? Can any objective observer disagree? It appears that Germany, which announced this week that it will phase out all nuclear power in 10 years, has seen the light. When will it happen here? Not soon enough for me and many others.

Then again, we’ve always got the fellas speeding up and down our rivers and lakes in their fancy bass boats, burying their heads in the Lake Hitchcock gravel and making fun of the “hysterical” no-nukers. But what will these bores have to say when disaster hits? Will they continue laughing, or be the subject of ridicule?

If that day ever arrives, I’d much rather be among the I-told-you-so fools.

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