At age 56, the Salem Harbor Power Station is in its dotage by some industry standards. How much longer can it last?
After a boiler pipe explosion killed three workers at the huge plant along Fort Avenue in Salem earlier this month, critical decisions loom: Next year, New England energy officials must decide if the plant is essential to the regional power grid. And owner Dominion power company must determine what investments to make to keep the facility running within state guidelines.
For now, the plant is shut down while state and federal investigations into the deaths continue. The plant's owner insists that it will be fired up again but is not committing to a long-term plan to keep it open.
"We've communicated to the employees on a daily basis that, first of all, their care and well-being is our top priority," said Dan Weekley, Dominion's managing director of Northeast state and local affairs "We don't know when it will happen, [but] it is our intention to restart Salem Harbor."
Even with a commitment to run through the fall of 2008, Weekley said, Salem Harbor's future is hard to predict. With environmental regulations requiring continual upgrades to operate cleanly, the constant cost of operations, maintenance and repair, and the flux of fuel prices, aging plants like Salem Harbor are "in a difficult position," he said.
If the plant shut down, it would be devastating to Salem taxpayers, Mayor Kim Driscoll said. The city counts on $4.5 million in annual real estate taxes from the plant, just under 3 percent of Salem's operating budget. And with 170 workers, Salem Harbor is the city's 10th largest employer.
"If they were not here, residential taxes and residential rates would skyrocket," Driscoll said. "It would critically impact people who are already struggling to meet their tax bills."
The uncertainty surrounding Salem Harbor isn't new. For at least a decade activists have fought to tighten environmental regulations, arguing that emissions from the oil and coal-fired electric plant are dangerous to the public health. And now - following the Nov. 6 explosion that killed mechanic Mark Mansfield, engineer Phillip Robinson, and rookie Mathew Indeglia - officials are investigating the plant's safety. The plant also has to be cleaned of accident debris, including fly ash and traces of asbestos, according to Dominion officials.
The facility - which was built in 1951 - is designated as a "must run" plant by ISO New England, a nonprofit that monitors the regional power grid. That status, which means that Salem Harbor is crucial to the grid, is to be reevaluted by ISO in October 2008. Next year is also the deadline for Salem Harbor's owner to determine whether to retrofit the plant to keep in line with environmental regulations, or to replace it, sell it, or close it.
"We certainly see the plant being able to operate for some time into the future," said Gary Courts, managing director of Dominion New England, during a recent conference call of Dominion officials. "The truth is we can't guarantee any of our plants will be running at a certain time in the future but, certainly, Salem Harbor is in our core mix of [power] generation."
New England can't afford to lose Salem Harbor, especially when energy demands are on the rise, according to Nenad Sarunac, associate director of the Energy Research Center at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
Sarunac has worked in the energy industry for about 30 years and said he had some dealings with a past owner of Salem Harbor, though he was never involved directly with the plant.
"You need power plants located in strategic locations to maintain grid stability," said Sarunac, who has a doctorate degree in mechanical engineering. "It's a real complex system, so we cannot just say, 'Oh, we are going to shut this place down because we don't like it, it's old and dirty.' "
Still, Sarunac added, the recent explosion at the plant will not help the decision-making process.
"It is going to give bad publicity to the plant," he said, though its safety record is "much more important than one isolated incident."
In fact, state and federal officials say the facility has a good safety rating. The US Department of Labor's Occupational Safety & Health Administration has cited the plant only once in the last decade, and that problem - failing to guard floor and wall openings and holes - was quickly fixed.
"A lot of companies talk about safety . . . this is probably one of the few companies I've seen that they really get on your case if you're not following all the safety rules," said Richard Robey, president of the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union, "which makes this accident that much harder to take. These guys were doing absolutely nothing wrong."
The facility's age may have played a part, according to one energy consultant.
Salem Harbor is one of the state's last coal-fired power plants. And it's old, according to Matthew Cordaro, a former CEO of two energy companies and now the director of the Center for Management Analysis at Long Island University's C.W. Post campus. With five and a half decades under its belt, Salem Harbor is at the "upper limits" of the estimated 60-year lifespan Cordaro said is given to most power plants.
Still, he added, most utility companies are trying to stretch the usefulness of their power-generating facilities as long as possible.
"It's difficult to build new plants from the standpoint of getting them permitted and licensed and with respect to costs . . . so everything is done to try to keep these old plants continuing to operate," he said.
Cordaro said economics more than age will determine Salem Harbor's future.
"As long as it's economical to keep on adding parts and putting Band-Aids on this and that, you will," he said.
Today, the four-unit plant uses a mix of low-sulfur coal and oil to produce electricity for more than 700,000 homes. Robey, an electrician, has worked there for 19 years. He disputed Cordaro's assessment of Salem Harbor's age, saying that but for the foundation and walls, he doubts much of the original plant still remains on the 65-acre site.
"While saying the plant is 50 years old is correct, in my opinion, it's inaccurate," Robey said. "This stuff has been rebuilt, replaced, refurbished many times throughout the years. . . . It's not a 1951 plant anymore, it's been done many, many times over."
He said workers are anxious to get Salem Harbor back online and producing electricity - the close-knit crew considers it a public service. Shutting down permanently is something they don't like to consider, and Dominion officials said they don't foresee that happening.
"We continue to believe that Salem will be in the mix of generation for years to come," said Courts. At the same time, he added, Dominion won't hurry the healing process or the safety investigation.
"We are very much focused on our employees' families . . . and getting everybody through this difficult time," he said. And "we're working very hard to understand what happened. We've been able to go in and see what happened but we don't know why it happened . . . We are not going to rush that process."
Erin Ailworth can be reached at email@example.com