BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The natural gas-fired power plant that developers want to build on the Salem waterfront appears on the verge of a major milestone.
The Energy Facilities Siting Board, the state agency that has been reviewing this proposal for the past year, is expected to approve the project at a meeting tomorrow in Boston.
A tentative decision issued a few days ago granted approval and found that “the construction and operation of the proposed generating facility will provide a reliable energy supply for the Commonwealth with a minimum impact on the environment at the lowest possible cost.”
Tomorrow, the full board will hear from proponents and opponents and then vote on final approval.
The project got its first important green light in February, an OK from ISO New England, operators of the regional power grid. ISO officials said power from the Salem plant will be needed in 2016 for energy reliability.
Although the project needs a number of state and local permits, the Energy Facilities Siting Board is seen as one of the longest and most detailed reviews.
“This is the primary permit they needed,” said state Rep. John Keenan of Salem, who is co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy.
An official from Footprint Power, the New Jersey firm that bought the 65-acre power plant property last year and is advancing this quick-start, 630-megawatt natural gas proposal, expressed cautious optimism on the eve of tomorrow’s vote.
After noting that staff from the state board conducted a thorough and lengthy review, Footprint President Scott Silverstein said “we’re hopeful (the board) will vote to make this decision final.”
Tomorrow night — hours after the meeting in Boston — the state Department of Environmental Protection will hold a 7 p.m. hearing at Bentley School on air-quality permits for the project.
The DEP announced recently that it has extended the public comment period on the draft permits from Oct. 11 to Nov. 1.
On Friday, assuming the project is approved by the Energy Facilities Siting Board, Footprint plans to file a new permit request with the state board. This is being done to override a court appeal filed by two Salem residents challenging an approval from the Salem Zoning Board of Appeals.
In a legal advertisement for the filing, the state board stated: “Footprint has indicated that it is unable to construct the generation facility” because of the appeal, which is likely to take months to be heard in court.
Footprint is on a tight timeline. It plans to shut down the coal and oil-fired Salem Harbor Station next May and open its new gas-fired plant in June 2016.
“The reason we filed (the new permit request) is because time is of the essence,” Silverstein said.
“Their big concern all along is whether or not they can make the deadline ...to start generating,” said Keenan. “The argument they have to make is that (consolidation) of the permit process is warranted to make that aggressive timeline.”
Footprint officials hope to have all their permits in hand by early next year in order to complete financing. Demolition of oil tanks on the property could begin next month.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.