SALEM — With the aging smokestacks of Salem Harbor Station as a backdrop, local and state environmental leaders announced the formation of a new statewide coalition yesterday, with the aim of shutting down the last coal power plants in the state.
The Salem plant is already slated to close by 2014. The new group, called Coal Free Massachusetts, wants to close similar plants in Somerset and Holyoke by 2020.
“We are leading the way for the rest of the country toward safer and healthier ways of developing energy, and moving away from the harmful ways of the past,” said Michelle Gottlieb, a Marblehead Board of Health member who is also a member of HealthLink, a local environmental advocacy group. “We’re all very excited about this statewide effort.”
Coal Free Massachusetts is a broad coalition of local environmental groups such as HealthLink and Salem Alliance for the Environment (SAFE), as well as state and national groups such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, 350.org, Massachusetts Climate Action Network and many others. The various groups have been in discussions since the fall about forming a unified anti-coal coalition. Leaders said many small local groups had formed in communities like Salem, but there was a need for a singular powerful voice and vision.
“We thought we should get together and form an umbrella organization ... because if we could all get together and agree on distinct purviews in a larger group, it would be really helpful to a group like SAFE,” said Pat Gozemba, SAFE co-chairwoman.
In Salem, groups like SAFE and HealthLink have been outspoken about the need to close the Dominion-owned power plant, which has been in operation since 1951. The plant will close in 2014 and will likely be replaced by a smaller, cleaner, gas power plant. Footprint Energy has signed an agreement to buy the plant, but the sale is not yet final.
Similar advocacy groups have sprung up in Somerset and Holyoke, as those communities begin to think about life without coal plants. Coal Free Massachusetts envisions that it will help organize those citizen groups and recruit municipal and state leaders into the fold.
It will also begin the planning it takes to close down a plant so that “no community is left holding the bag” when plant owners “shake their hands clean and walk away,” said Becky Smith of Clean Water Action.
Currently, coal plants are under no obligation to clean up their sites when they close, allowing them to padlock the door and leave a mess behind for decades.
“We have looked at communities across the country and learned some pretty horrifying lessons. Plants close, and for years after, there is nothing on the site,” said James McCaffrey, director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club. “One of those lessons is you’ve got to start planning early.”
The planning, which Salem leaders now know full well, includes finding a way to replace property taxes from the plants, which in Salem’s case runs into millions of dollars.
“Salem is a big sister in this case. This coal pile and these oil tanks will be gone soon, thanks to the visionaries here,” Smith said, adding that Salem will be used in some instances as a kind of blueprint. “We want to exercise that vision for the whole state of Massachusetts.”
The overriding motivation for the movement is that pollution from coal plants contributes to myriad health and environmental problems, the activists said.
“For me personally, it’s about my children’s future,” said Salem resident Kathy Karch, a mother of two, a teacher at Pingree and a member of SAFE. “I want them to have a secure food source, a secure water source and secure energy sources. That will not happen unless citizens get more involved in policy.”