BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — Footprint Power and the Conservation Law Foundation, who have been slugging it out over a proposed $800 million natural gas power plant on the waterfront, are close to a deal that could end their high-stakes fight.
In a joint motion filed yesterday with a state board, the New Jersey power plant developer and the Massachusetts environmental organization said they “believe that they may be able to reach a settlement” in the contentious case that has been fought at public hearings, before state boards, in court filings and at private meetings.
At stake, local officials say, is not only the construction of a power plant that would be the No. 1 taxpayer in Salem, but the redevelopment of the remaining 40 acres of the Salem Harbor Station waterfront site, a key piece of the city’s harbor plan.
City officials warn that without a deal, Salem Harbor Station could be padlocked after it closes in four months and the long-awaited cleanup and redevelopment put on hold.
Plant opponents contend Salem officials have been crying wolf, that the need for the plant has been exaggerated and the threat to the environment has been largely ignored.
Technically, CLF and Footprint have asked for another week to hammer out the details of a proposed settlement agreement, which they would present to the state Energy Facilities Siting Board by next Tuesday.
Both parties declined comment yesterday.
Mayor Kim Driscoll called it a “promising sign” that the two sides are trying to reach an agreement. “We look forward to the next two weeks and the follow-up on their discussions,” she said.
On a larger scale, this pact could give CLF the guarantees it seeks from the state on lowering greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts. It could also open the door for Footprint to secure financing and begin demolition of the current power plant and construction of a new 674-megawatt gas plant.
Salem Harbor Station, which burns coal and oil, is scheduled to close at the end of May after a run of 62 years. The new plant is slated to open in June 2016.
Although the two sides have been sparring for more than a year, this fight got serious in November when CLF appealed a key approval by the Energy Facilities Siting Board, a state agency that oversees power plant proposals and had spent months reviewing the project.
The state Supreme Judicial Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the appeal March 4. If a settlement is reached, the appeal is expected to be withdrawn.
CLF alleged a number of errors in the state’s board decision, which it said was made without credible evidence that the proposed Salem plant could meet the greenhouse gas emission limits set in the Global Warming Solutions Act, a bill Gov. Deval Patrick signed in 2008.
The possible settlement announced yesterday is expected to be all-encompassing, meaning it will include appeals CLF has filed with other boards and agencies.
Locally, decisions by Salem boards were appealed by two Salem residents, William Dearstyne and Michael Furlong. The status of those appeals is unclear.
The legal filing yesterday, however, stated that “the Department of Environmental Protection, National Grid, the city of Salem, William Dearstyne and Michael Furlong have no objection to this motion.”
This possible settlement comes three days after about 400 environmental activists staged a protest in Salem hoping to block construction of the plant. A small group of largely Salem residents held a counter-protest, arguing that the plant would be a practical solution to the state’s energy needs and environmental goals.
ISO-New England, which manages the regional power grid, said the new plant is needed and warned that without the power from Salem, the region could have controlled blackouts.
In response, CLF issued a statement last fall that made clear it was targeting not just the Salem plant but the state.
“CLF is focused on ensuring that the decision to build this, or any new power plant, is made in compliance with the law and as the Global Warming Solutions Act requires, with full consideration of the climate and other environmental impacts it will have over its lifespan,” CLF Vice President N. Jonathan Peress stated last fall.
“Shortcutting that process is not only against the law, but it sets a terrible precedent for a state that proposes to lead the nation on climate. We will not let fear-mongering about brownouts, nor Footprint’s self-interest in fast-tracking the project, deter us from getting due process.”
After CLF filed its appeal in November, state Rep. John Keenan of Salem, a strong power plant proponent who heads a key House committee, filed a bill that would have exempted the Salem project from further regulatory appeals. CLF called that action “unconstitutional and unconscionable.”
Keenan, chairman of the House Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, withdrew the controversial language after the SJC agreed to hear the appeal in a timely fashion.
Keenan has not been part of the settlement talks.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.