SALEM — A federal court settlement announced yesterday between Dominion Energy Inc. and two environmental groups that accused the company of pollution violations signals the death of coal at Salem Harbor Station.
The agreement resolving a 2010 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court includes a stipulation that future plant owners cannot burn coal after 2014, when Dominion has announced it will shut down the fossil fuel facility.
Coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels, has been burned off and on at Salem Harbor Station since the plant opened in 1951. Prior to that, the waterfront area was a coal terminal.
While banning coal, however, the settlement with the Conservation Law Foundation and HealthLink, a North Shore group, does not slam the door on someone else building or operating a power plant at the 62-acre waterfront site.
That possibility was raised last week when a New Jersey company, Footprint Power, confirmed a report in The Salem News that it is negotiating with Dominion to build a natural gas plant here.
The court agreement states that a future company "may ... seek to re-power Salem Harbor Power Station or construct a new electric generating unit not fueled by coal," according to Dominion.
There are environmentalists in the area who hoped Dominion's exit in two years would mark the end of Salem's 60 years of hosting a "dirty" power plant.
While it may have preferred such a ban, HealthLink did not ask for that in court.
"There are many of us who feel that way, but we never would have reached a settlement had we taken that position," said Jane Bright, a spokeswoman for the group.
Local review and permitting will provide controls over what is built at the site in the future, Bright said.
The settlement also includes an "enforceable commitment" from the plant owner to shut down all four generating units by 2014, according to HealthLink. Dominion had already voluntarily made that commitment.
"Many community members were concerned the previously announced shutdown dates would not be honored," Healthlink Executive Director Martha Dansdill said in a statement. "We are very pleased this is now legally enforceable."
Dominion also agreed to spend $275,000 on environmental projects in Salem and at least two other area communities — possibly Beverly, Marblehead or Manchester-by-the-Sea — to improve air quality and reduce electricity demand.
The agreement settled a lawsuit filed by the CLF and HealthLink alleging the plant had violated the Federal Clean Air Act nearly 300 times between 2005-2009.
Citing violations the plant owner reported to the state, the lawsuit said the oil- and coal-fired facility exceeded its "opacity" limits. The opacity, or density of the gas stream coming from the smokestacks, is a strong indicator of the amount of "particulates," or small particles of metals and other hazardous materials in the emissions, CLF said.
CLF called particulates "one of the deadliest pollutants," an airborne matter linked to lung and heart disease.
While agreeing to several conditions, including paying $100,000 in CLF attorney fees, Dominion admitted no wrongdoing.
"The allegations by the environmental organizations of federal and state opacity violations at Salem Harbor are dismissed," the company said in a statement. "Dominion denied the allegations, and the proposed consent decree resolves the claims by agreement without any finding or admission of liability."
The violations alleged by CLF were sparked by North Shore residents who took photos of dense clouds coming from the plant's stacks, HealthLink said.
"Hats off to the community members who did that," Bright said. "They really raised (a red) flag.
"The community is vigilant, and anybody coming in ... proposing to do anything on that site needs to know the community cares, and we will use every resource we have to be sure that whatever goes in there next makes sense for the community."