May 23, 2011 | last updated March 25, 2012 10:39 am

L.S. Starrett In Court Over Hydroelectric Dam

During the past three years, Douglas Starrett, president and CEO of Athol-based tool manufacturer L.S. Starrett, has poured more than $1.5 million into rehabilitating a hydroelectricity power plant at his business.

The work is done, the new turbine parts have been installed and the system could create as much as one quarter of the power that the company uses.

But he can't turn it on.

After a group of environmentalists expressed concern for fish populations in the Millers River, where the turbine is located, Uncle Sam got involved.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) informed Starrett late last year that the company would need to obtain a permit from the agency before the system could be turned on.

To do that, the system basically needs approval from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which consults with FERC and has recommended that Starrett install about $100,000 to $180,000 in additional equipment to protect the fish in the river.

Now the fight has gone to the courts with Starrett challenging FERC's ruling that it has jurisdiction in the project.

Meanwhile, Starrett, who is sitting on his $1.5-million installation, said there is a broader issue here between balancing environmental concerns with the desire of businesses to install clean energy projects.

"Dollar bills are going over my dam every day," he said. "That's not right."

Issue At Hand

A simple question in the issue for L.S. Starrett is whether or not FERC, the federal energy regulator, has jurisdiction over the project.

Starrett claims that it does not because the original turbine installation was constructed in the early 1900s and so it predates a 1935 ruling that grants FERC control. Starrett is arguing that the new hydroelectricity turbines are merely a reinstallation and upgrade of the old system, not an entirely new system.

FERC sees it differently.

According to a letter the agency sent to the company in October 2009, FERC claims that it does have jurisdiction because the new turbine will cross a threshold and produce enough power to fall under the agency's oversight.

Starrett challenges that claim as well, noting that the listed power generation capacity of the project is less than what the system will actually produce because the system is limited by the flow in the Millers River.

Whether or not FERC has jurisdiction remains an open question and one that a U.S. Federal District Court judge in Boston will answer. Each side argued in front of a judge in a January, but no ruling has been issued.

Fishing For Answers

FERC got involved with the situation after a group, named Trout Unlimited, appealed to the agency, urging it to invoke its jurisdiction to protect wildlife in the Millers River.

The river is home to a variety of species, according to Melissa Grader, an official with U.S. Fish & Wildlife. These include Atlantic salmon, American eel and bass, among others. The salmon could particularly be harmed from the turbine's installation, Grader said.

USFW runs a spawning program in the Millers River upstream of the installation in which baby salmon are placed in the water to help the fish population grow in the area each season.

While Starrett challenges the success of the program, USFW has recommended that FERC mandate that L.S. Starrett install additional protections in the hydroelectricity system to protect the salmon and other wildlife in the river.

Grader concedes that the spawning program has been less than what officials had hoped for, but still USFW, and therefore FERC, is asking for additional improvements to the system. For example, a more extensive netting system could be installed to ensure that fish do not get trapped in the turbine. Or the power of the turbine could be limited to reduce the velocity of the water flowing into the system.

L.S. Starrett employs more than 500 people at its Athol manufacturing plant and Starrett, the owner, said he needs the project to be turned on to help with his costs of doing business.

"The problem here is that there is no common sense," Starrett said. "This project is for the greater good of the community and the economy."

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