SALEM — The first large public hearing on Footprint Power’s plan to build a natural gas-fired power plant on the Salem waterfront generated a lot of questions and concerns, but little heat.
If there is strong, broad-based community opposition to the idea of replacing 61-year-old Salem Harbor Station, a coal and oil-fired facility, with another power plant, it didn’t emerge last night from the more than 100 people who attended a Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board hearing at Salem High.
The project got a warm reception, as expected, from elected officials, business leaders and a union representative from the plant, but it also was endorsed by a Salem-based environmental group and several neighbors.
“I see natural gas as the future...” said Peter Hackmeister, who lives near the waterfront.
State Rep. John Keenan of Salem said he heard strong support while campaigning recently in Salem Willows, a neighborhood in the shadow of the plant.
“The neighbors are excited to see the stacks come down and to see the coal pile disappear,” he said.
Representatives from Salem Alliance for the Environment, a local group, said they overcame reservations about the fossil fuel’s impact on the environment to support a project that will be good for the city’s financial health.
“The economics are there so we’re for this,” said Jeffrey Barz-Snell, co-chairman of SAFE.
The group said it also was impressed by the ability of the 630-megawatt, “quick-start” plant to start up in just 10 minutes, making it a dependable backup for attractive, but less reliable renewable energy sources.
The most impassioned opposition came from Pat Pollard, a Marblehead resident who lives across from the plant. She said area residents have suffered serious health problems over the years and that it “matters little” what fossil fuel is burned.
“Today we know that power plants should not be sited in densely populated areas,” she said. “It is unconscionable to site a new power plant in Salem.”
Sue Kirby, a Salem resident who identified herself as a member of Occupy Boston, also argued strongly against natural gas.
“Like replacing heroin with methadone, this permit does nothing to reduce our addiction to fossil fuel,” she said.
Jane Bright, one of the leaders of HealthLink, a North Shore environmental group that fought to close the coal plant, said there is no justification for building a new generational facility. When ISO New England, which manages the regional power grid, granted a request by the past owner to shut down by 2014, the agency “determined energy from this area is no longer needed.”
A representative from Conservation Law Foundation, which has successfully sued the power plant in the past, said Footprint’s application to the state agency “falls seriously short.”
Footprint supporters made a strong case for the other side.
Keenan, chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, said all of the information he has seen supports a new plant.
“There is going to be a need to build a new plant,” he said. “This is the place to build it.”
James “Red” Simpson, business manager for IBEW Local 326, which represents plant workers, thanked Footprint Power for taking a chance when others wouldn’t.
“There is no doubt in my mind Dominion Power (the past owner) would have put a padlock on the door in 2014 and walked away.”
Footprint has promised to demolish existing buildings and clean up the site once it shuts down in May 2014. It expects to have a new plant built and operating by 2016.
Several people argued that gas is much cleaner than coal or oil, with half the pollutants.
The North Shore Chamber of Commerce’s board endorsed the proposal this week.
“It will be good for Salem and good for the North Shore,” said North Shore Chamber President Robert Bradford.
The Energy Facilities Siting Board is one of many approvals Footprint needs before it can build the new plant. Last night’s hearing was the start of its lengthy review.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.