Old power plant losing its spell over Salem, Mass.
Tough pollution rules could close down coal plant known for generating taxes, pollution.
Sun, Nov 28, 2010 at 02:41 PM
"Not in my lifetime" is a retort the Salem Harbor Power Station's opponents got used to hearing over years of warnings that the end was near for the hulking plant.
For six decades, the plant has stood over the historic port's entrance like a smoking sentry, burning the coal and oil that made it a target for environmentalists while paying the millions in taxes that helped it win local loyalty.
But as tough pollution rules approach, the plant looks poised for that predicted exit. Early this month, plant owner Dominion's chief financial officer, Mark McGettrick, told investors that within five years "we would expect Salem Harbor plant to shut down."
The comment rattled city leaders, but environmentalists say Salem — best known for the infamous witch trials of 1692 — now has a chance to demonstrate how a city can best move beyond coal.
"This is the beginning of what's going to be happening all over the country," said the Rev. Jeffrey Barz-Snell of the Salem Alliance for the Environment.
Some closures are already under way nationwide. The power company Exelon Corp. is planning to shutter two Pennsylvania coal plants, both more than 50 years old, by 2012. Edison International plans to shut two 55-year-old coal plants near Chicago by the end of this year.
The Salem plant is older than all those facilities, opening in 1951 before expanding in 1958 and 1972. The 745-megawatt plant can power 745,000 homes and is paying Salem $4.75 million in taxes and fees this year.
Delores Jordan, who lives about a half-mile from the power station, remembers the playground that spanned the plant's property before its smokestacks, rusting oil tanks and massive coal mound claimed the ocean view.
Salem residents, wowed by the promised millions in revenues, supported the plant from the start, said Jordan, 82. The support held strong, she said, even after residue streaming from its smokestacks began leaving a black film on windows and porches.
The plant's pollution eventually earned it a listing in 2000 as one of the state's "filthy five" dirtiest power plants. It also took a big hit in 2007 when an accident killed three workers. And a study a decade ago by Harvard University researchers said the plant caused 30 premature deaths annually.
Such studies prompt deep skepticism locally. And since Dominion Resources Inc. purchased the plant in 2005, it's reduced pollution with steps such as switching to a low-sulfur coal. But Dominion has also signaled with its wallet that the Salem plant was a dropping priority.
Since 2005, Dominion has spent more than $1 billion on its larger and more efficient 1,547-megawatt coal plant at Brayton Point in Somerset, compared with $12 million in Salem.
Dominion spokesman Dan Genest added that Salem is a so-called "merchant" plant, meaning it sells power into a market instead of directly to ratepayers, so Dominion can't shift the costs of any new pollution controls to ratepayers.
"We would not spend the money for those controls, and we would close the plant down if we could not recover our costs," he said.
But ratepayers might still end up paying for such upgrades in Salem.
In recent years, Dominion has asked the local grid manager, ISO New England, for permission to temporarily remove, or "delist," its generators from a key energy market. But the ISO has required Salem to operate, and can continue to do so, if it determines that Salem is needed to guarantee the area gets sufficient power when energy use spikes.
The ISO is now studying how to replace the Salem plant, such as by adding wires to upgrade the transmission system. Such upgrades can take five to eight years, given the complexity that comes with running wires through new areas, said Doug Hurley of the research firm Synapse Energy Economics Inc.
If new environmental rules go into effect while Dominion is required to keep Salem running, the millions in costs to comply are passed on to ratepayers, pending approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
"We could have this plant sticking around ... putting out pollution, funded by ratepayers," said Shanna Cleveland of the Conservation Law Foundation, a longtime plant opponent that unearthed McGettrick's remarks.
Salem Mayor Kimberly Driscoll noted the plant meets stringent pollution regulations. And she wouldn't mind an extended life for the plant. This year's taxes and fees are roughly equal to the public works department's budget, she said.
A study that will look at reusing the site is planned, and a luxury marina or a cleaner power generator are among the ideas that have been floated. But Driscoll notes that none of it will match the revenue the plant brings.
Sgt. Peter Gifford, Salem's harbormaster and a lifelong resident, spoke about the plant's roughly 145 jobs as he considered a Salem without a power station he calls "a good neighbor." The work represents a piece of Salem history that Gifford, 57, doesn't want to see disappear.
"I've watched Salem change in my life from a blue collar manufacturing town, to (now) that's the last plant left," Gifford said, as he sat in his work pickup, the plant behind him. "That's it."
(Associated Press Energy Writer Jonathan Fahey in New York contributed to this report.)
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