By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — The natural gas-fired power plant proposed for Salem Harbor took a big step toward becoming a reality yesterday.
While several more permits and approvals are needed, yesterday’s OK from the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board means the project has cleared a major hurdle. The board had been reviewing Footprint’s petition for the past year.
“This is a historic morning,” said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who attended the state board’s hearing in Boston. “This is the largest and most important permit. Without this, there is no plant ... We’re excited to be at this point.”
The coal-fired Salem Harbor Station power plant is scheduled to close in May. New Jersey-based Footprint Power purchased the property last year and plans to redevelop the site, building a 670-megawatt, $800 million natural gas-fired plant.
About seven hours after the siting board’s vote yesterday morning, another state entity held a public hearing — this time, on an air quality permit for the proposed plant — at Bentley Elementary School in Salem.
Roughly 50 people attended the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s hearing last night. DEP representatives heard close to two hours of public comment, a mix of both pro and con.
“In Salem’s 400-year history, this is the most important redevelopment project,” said state Rep. John Keenan, D-Salem. “I could not support this more.”
Webb Street resident Jeff Brooks was among those who raised concerns about the plant’s impact on the environment and surrounding neighborhoods.
Residents will become “collateral damage,” he said.
“Just insisting ‘no more fossil fuels, no more fossil fuels’ is not a plan,” said Jeffrey Barz-Snell, minister of The First Church in Salem and co-chairman of Salem Alliance For the Environment.
ISO New England, which operates the region’s power grid, has OK’d Footprint’s plans and said the power the new plant would generate will be needed by 2016.
Scott Silverstein, Footprint Power president and chief operating officer, said they plan to have the new plant built and operating by June 1, 2016.
The plant will be a “quick start” facility, meaning it will be able to generate nearly half of its output to the power grid in 10 minutes, with the remainder available in the course of an hour.
The facility is proposed to use 18 acres of the 65-acre site. The property, a deep-water port next to the city’s ferry landing, has been a power plant since the 1950s.
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.
The morning’s siting board vote was 6-0, with one member, Penn Loh, abstaining. Roughly 15 people attended the two-hour hearing, held at the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities offices at South Station in Boston.
The board also tacked on two amendments to Footprint’s petition: the creation of an outreach plan to inform the public of any remaining development activity at the site; and adoption of a “community benefits agreement,” a lengthy list of conditions to handle the plant’s impact on the surrounding area, such as requiring construction vehicles be hosed down before leaving the property (to minimize dust).
The power plant is Salem’s biggest taxpayer. Throughout the process, Driscoll has said the plant redevelopment will be an economic boost and improve public access to Salem’s waterfront.
Driscoll stressed that a lot of attention has gone into the project “to make sure this is done right.”
“At some point in 1950 there was never a process like this to approve that (coal-burning) power plant,” she said.
Linda Haley attended the morning hearing on behalf of Salem’s Point and Derby Street neighborhood groups.
She questioned the need for a new power plant in Salem. With Footprint purchasing the property right away, there wasn’t much time to explore other options for the site.
“The process itself feels unduly rushed,” said Haley, who recently moved to Marblehead from Salem.
Sue Reid, director of the Conservation Law Foundation Massachusetts, argued Footprint has “failed to demonstrate” compliance with Massachusetts’ Global Warming Solutions Act, a law enacted in 2008 to limit emissions. Reid spoke at both the morning hearing in Boston and the DEP’s meeting last night in Salem.
Robert Shea, EFSB presiding officer, said the agency found that Footprint’s plant would help the state meet its Global Warming Solutions Act emission targets.
The new gas-fired plant would be among the most efficient and lowest-emission plants in New England, Shea said.
“We wouldn’t propose to build something that wouldn’t address these problems (emissions),” said Silverstein. “Our plant, compared to nothing being there, reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 450,000 tons per year (on average, for the plant’s first 10 years). That’s a good thing.”
Ann Berwick, chairwoman of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, voted in favor of the plant, but “not without misgivings,” she said.
“The difficulty is that we’re facing a situation where a coal plant is shutting down ... I’m unclear as to how we’d keep the lights on in the relatively near future (without the gas plant),” Berwick said. “Given our reliability mandate, I’m going to vote for the plant.”