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Salem power plant opponents gearing up for a fight

Posted by Ryan Mooney  July 10, 2012 11:31 AM

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The folks who have called for the closure of the Salem Harbor Power Station for years, calling it an environmental hazard and an eyesore, are gearing up to fight the opening of a new natural-gas plant.

Footprint Power LLC, a New Jersey-based power company, announced on June 29 the acquisition of Salem Harbor Power Station and its plans to replace the coal-and-oil-fired plant with a smaller natural-gas plant.

The current plant, run by Dominion Energy Inc., is scheduled to shut down completely on June 1, 2014.

Members of Occupy Salem held a public meeting on the contentious issue Monday night. Among their supporters is Jan Schlichtmann, the Beverly attorney nationally recognized for his involvement in the high profile, civil legal battle against W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods over contamination of water in Woburn that spawned the 1994 book "A Civil Action" and 1998 film of the same name.

Schlichtmann takes issue with city leaders for not pressuring Dominion into finding a suitor with a plan to develop something other than a power plant on site. He derides Mayor Kim Driscoll's assertion that the gas plant is necessary to avoid a situation where developers are deterred by the estimated $50 to $75 million the cleanup of the site is expected to cost. Driscoll could not be reached immediately for comment.

His vision of Salem Harbor's future? A marine biology research facility.

"We've fished it and built this beautiful city, we traded on it and became a maritime power, we got our energy by it's shore - we're all familiar with that - maybe it's time to learn from it," Schlichtmann said.

The vision is not impossible, even with the new plant. Footprint's facility is only expected to take up about one-third of the 63-acre site, leaving about 40-acres open for future commercial and industrial use.

Schlichtmann's ideal vision is not one of co-existence, and he uses a comprehensive study - which was commissioned by the city to gauge best future uses of the site - to back his belief that the plant is unnecessary. In it, Jacobs Engineering, LaCapra Associates and others involved in putting together the 100-plus-page report allude to other uses being more economically viable.

"In many of the scenarios that were analyzed, the economics do not seem to justify the development of a new power plant at the site," the report reads.

But Schlichtmann and his environmental allies - including HealthLink and 350 Massachusetts - are not without their detractors in the fight against the plant.

Jeff Barz-Snell, a local Unitarian minister, and Pat Gozemba, co-chair of the Salem Alliance for the Environment, both sat on a Salem board assembled to dig through the re-use report, and believe that enough has changed to make the plant not only economically viable, but a good idea.

They say that the technology Footprint plans on using is so much more efficient than what is used currently, that other coal plants in the region could cutback or eventually close all-together as a result of the gas plant in Salem, thus cutting down further on greenhouse emissions.

"The developer came to us and said that the market is a little more nuanced than the report said, market conditions have changed," Barz-Snell said. "And they're making a very compelling case that they can reduce greenhouse emissions."

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