Water Works Questioned

Morgantown Dominion Post
25 November 2016
By Ben Conley

A recent filing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) raised concerns from a coalition of stakeholders, including the city of Morgantown, Monongalia County, the Upper Mon River Trails Conservancy (MRTC) and the Upper Mon River Association (UMRA).

The filing in question pertains to a proposal from Free Flow Power, now called Rye Development, to place a hydroelectric power plant on the Morgantown Lock and Dam. This project has been in the works since 2012.

As part of the licensing process for Rye’s multi-site development — hydroelectric plants are planned for the Point Marion and Opekiska Locks as well, among others — FERC concluded an environmental assessment with a filing that stated the developments would not significantly affect the areas in question.

Especially troubling, according to UMRA Vice President Frank Jernejcic, is that FERC didn’t appear to put much consideration into some of the major concerns raised by stakeholders, including how the power plant will affect access to key fishing areas.

Jernejcic, who retired from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources after 45 years as a fisheries biologist, said the area immediately below the dam — called the tail waters — is the best place to fish on a river.

UMRA President Barry Pallay said the tail waters of the Mon River are among the state’s most productive fisheries.

“But now that powerhouse is going right where everybody fishes. So you’ve eliminated the area that everybody goes to fish,” Jernejcic said. “You can say, ‘Well, we’ll make a pier downstream.’ Well, you can make a pier downstream, but you can’t fish up where the fish are going to be, near the dam.”

According to Jernejcic, among the “deal breakers” for stakeholders is a walkway on the power plant, which would dramatically improve access to the prime fishing spots near the structures.

Jernejcic said jetties are also being requested at regular intervals along the shore to break up the rapidly moving water and provide pools of calm water for fishing.

“If they do this the way we want, it’s going to increase the ability of people to use this area by 1,000 percent, forever. But if they don’t, it will be gone forever ... and we don’t get anything out of it,” Jernejcic said.

“This is our backyard they’re coming into, so there’s no reason for us to give up anything at all. They aren’t doing us any favors here. They’re going to make money. ... So we get nothing out of it unless they do what we want done.”

The project has already been dramatically altered due to feedback. The original plans included a power plant built on the shore, which would have required a rerouting of the riverside rail trail. After it was explained that altering the rail trail was not an option, plans were changed and the power plant was moved in-stream.

Pallay said that along with fishing access, impact on the rail trail and noise and light pollution are issues about which there is still some concern.

“If they could meet all those concerns, then we would not oppose the project,” Pallay said. “But if they can’t remediate these and assure us that these issues are going to be taken care of, then we, the coalition, would oppose it.”

The one “saving grace,” according to Jernejcic, is that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will ultimately have to give its approval before final licensing is granted by FERC.

“That’s big for us,” Jernejcic said. “We have some degree of confidence in that we are communicating with them, we know the people involved at DEP and we have a good dialogue. They seem to be on board with us.”

Jernejcic, who said he’s been involved with “probably 20” similar projects during his time with the DNR, estimated the project to be 50 percent through the complex regulatory process.

“It’s complicated, but it’s got major ramifications for Morgantown, for the river, for all of us,” Jernejcic said.