After the hulking cooling towers at the mouth of the Taunton River emit their last puffs of coal exhaust, Somerset could become home to yet another rusting relic or, as environmental activists hope, the departure could set off redevelopment for Brayton Point.
Rep. Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat who lives downwind of a soon-to-be-shuttered Salem coal plant, wants the few remaining coal plant operators to participate in planning for a re-use of the site. Under her proposed legislation all operators of power plants generating 75 megawatts or more of electricity would contribute to a Community Transitioning Fund.
The fund would be made available to towns such as Somerset that will see their tax bases shrink when the power plant leaves, and the bill would provide training for workers who lose their jobs when plants close.
Before entering politics, Ehrlich said, she led the charge to clean up six feet of coal waste in a drinking water aquifer that serves 80,000 people.
“Six years, $10 million, and they hauled all of the waste out of the drinking water,” Ehrlich said. “The local communities pay a very high price and nobody’s happier than me that we’re transitioning.”
Since she first filed the bill last session, Ehrlich said, two plants, including Salem, said they would shutter, and a third – which will be the last Bay State coal plant once Brayton Point and Salem close – has shown indications it plans to close.
“Since I’ve filed this there’s been several new realities, and one of those realities is that Brayton Point just announced its plans for closure. I think many people are in a new frame of mind,” Ehrlich said. She said there’s now an opportunity for “scaling up” renewable energy throughout the state.
On Tuesday morning, anti-coal activists gathered in the Great Hall in the State House in support of Ehrlich’s bill (H 2935).
Salem is due to close June 1, 2014, with a new natural gas plant set to take over the space. Former coal plants can leave behind expensive eyesores, but they can also provide a unique setting, as was the case with the Tate Modern art museum in London, housed in a former coal plant.
“The sky is the limit,” said Toxics Action Center Massachusetts State Director Claire Miller, who noted coal plant redevelopments in Austin and Toronto, the largely successful re-use of old mill buildings around the state, and Brayton Point’s scenic setting across the water from Fall River looking out on Mount Hope Bay.
Prospective casino developers KG Urban Enterprises want to redevelop the former Cannon Street Station, a large former coal plant on New Bedford’s waterfront. The plant converted to oil and natural gas likely in the 1950s and closed in 1992, according to NSTAR. The casino developers previously built Sands Bethlehem casino at the former site of Bethlehem Steel, in Pennsylvania.
Mount Tom, which is the state’s third remaining coal plant, has “delisted itself from the grid for 2016” meaning it wouldn’t be on call to fire up that year, Miller said. Ehrlich said that’s what Salem did before announcing its plans to close.
Another former coal plant along the Taunton River in Somerset was shuttered in 2010, and sits unused along the water.
Toxics Action Executive Director Sylvia Broude said the group surveyed about 350 Somerset residents, speaking to them at home or outside grocery stores, and found twice as many wanted to plan for a new future for the site rather than fight to keep the plant running.
Brayton Point plans to close by May 2017.
“Devastating,” was how Somerset resident Pauline Rodrigues summed up the economic impact of Brayton Point’s closure. She said, “We’re going to lose in the vicinity of $13 million per year within five years, and our town budget is approximately $50 million per year.”
Rodrigues said the other coal plant that closed in 2010 was “so obviously unhealthy” and said asthma is such a problem in the town that a baseball coach said “he wasn’t sure if he was there as a coach because he was in charge of so many inhalers.”
Toxic Action leaders said the transition assistance portion of the bill is the most important part, and said much of the responsibility for the future of Brayton Point will lie with the plant owner.
“They could be a bad neighbor, and just shut the door and padlock it and walk away,” which the former coal plant did, Miller said. She said she has not seen any studies about what a cleanup would cost, and a sale to a new owner would trigger the responsibility for a cleanup.
Broude said the plant’s recent owner Dominion Energy saw the plant as a “sinking ship” and that it had spent $1 billion to upgrade even as revenues plummeted 90 percent in the last few years. The new owner, EquiPower, bought Brayton “as a package” along with two more profitable plants in the Midwest, and Brayton was included “for the value of its scrap,” Miller said. She said Dominion didn’t want to operate in the Bay State’s deregulated energy market.
Broude said the Patrick administration has provided $100,000 each to Holyoke and Somerset to plan for the future use of the sites.
“We relied so heavily on this industry that made a lot of money for our town but also made us, our children and grandchildren sick. Now that Brayton Point has announced it will close, we must have support from outside of our borders to plan for the future of the sites,” Rodrigues said in a statement. Asked what she thought the realistic prospects are for redevelopment of the site, Rodrigues said, “We need the state help, but to say what the actual prospects are, I’m not sure.”