SALEM — Mayor Kim Driscoll ventured into “enemy territory” this week to make a pitch for a new Salem power plant.
Driscoll gave a PowerPoint presentation at a Marblehead Chamber of Commerce meeting Thursday morning, the first of what is expected to be several trips to area business and civic groups.
It was no accident that Driscoll made Marblehead her first stop. It is home to state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, a plant opponent, and environmental activists who share Ehrlich’s belief that the proposed 674-megawatt fossil fuel plant is not needed and will be a source of pollution for decades.
Driscoll’s speaking engagement comes as Footprint Power’s $800 million plan to build a natural gas plant at Salem Harbor Station is caught in what supporters are casting as a life-and-death struggle. In March, the state Supreme Judicial Court is expected to hear an environmental group’s appeal of a key state board’s approval of the project.
Footprint needs to resolve the legal dispute and obtain the required permits to secure financing, order equipment and start construction on a facility it plans to open in June 2016.
During her talk before an audience of about 20, Driscoll made several references to the perceived “hostility” between the two communities over this issue.
“It’s been divisive between the communities, and I don’t think it has to be,” she said. “... We’re neighbors.”
Driscoll told the Marblehead audience that the power plant will be cleaner than other gas plants and will provide needed power to the region.
“It’s going to be smaller, it’s going to be cleaner, and it’s much less of a blight,” she said. She said the plant will be “the most efficient gas plant on line.”
It also is expected to be the city’s biggest taxpayer, as the current plant has been for years.
The Salem mayor also mentioned a recent court filing by ISO-New England, managers of the regional power grid, stating the need for power in this region from the Salem plant.
“ISO has come out as strong as I’ve ever seen them,” Driscoll said.
“We need the power,” she said at another point. “There are lives at stake when you don’t have enough power.”
The mayor showed architect’s renderings of the new plant and explained that it will occupy about one-third of the 62-acre site, leaving room for marine and industrial development. She also told about plans to use the plant’s deep-water port for cruise ships, which prompted Deborah Greel, executive director of the Marblehead Arts Association, to ask if passengers could be steered to Marblehead.
“This will give Marblehead an enormous opportunity to jump-start some of its economic development,” said Greel, a Salem resident.
Jane Bright, a Marblehead resident, chamber member and activist with HealthLink, a regional environmental group, challenged the mayor on the need for the plant.
Bright argued that the need for additional power is relatively small and only short-term.
“Do we have to have 700-megawatts for 40 years to cover an 18-month shortfall?” Bright asked. “That’s really where the conversation is.”
Another plant opponent was even more vocal.
Linda Haley, a Salem neighborhood activist who recently moved to Marblehead, questioned how thoroughly state and local agencies have investigated safety issues, contending that gas plants carry serious risks.
“There’s a lot more to the story than people are representing in a slide show,” Haley said.
Driscoll noted that the plant has gone through a number of state and local reviews. “We feel like this thing has been vetted to death,” she said.
The Salem mayor told about other cities’ efforts to develop former coal plants and said Salem doesn’t want to end up, as some have, with a locked, blighted site for decades.
The power plant can help jump-start redevelopment of the land, she said.
“If we hold up this particular plant,” she said, “I see a lot of loss not only for the city, but to the region and Commonwealth. ... Can we not let the perfect be the enemy of the good?”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.