SALEM — HealthLink, the local environmental group that has long fought Salem's coal-fired power plant, is now speaking out against the natural gas power plant proposed to replace it.
The nonprofit issued a press release yesterday, in conjunction with Clean Water Action and the Salem Alliance for the Environment, listing concerns over a natural gas facility proposed by Footprint Power — from the project's size to its impact on the area.
"We just have an awful lot of questions, and based on the information we have, we can't support (the natural gas proposal)," said Jane Bright, HealthLink spokeswoman. "We will continue to talk with (Footprint), but we felt it was important to broaden the conversation so that more people will understand what is going on."
Salem Harbor Station will cease operation in June 2014. Dominion, the Virginia-based plant owner, is in negotiations with New Jersey-based Footprint Power to build a natural gas-fueled plant on the property.
The 62-acre site is a deep-water port next to the city's ferry landing; it has been a power plant since the 1950s.
HealthLink met with representatives from Footprint Power twice in February. Bright said yesterday that the group will continue to be involved in the process and hopes to meet again with Footprint.
Among the group's concerns is that Footprint asserts it has the financial backing to take down the old power plant structure and clean up the site but does not yet have funding to build the new plant.
"Frankly, (that) makes us ask a lot of questions," Bright said. "... If someone says, 'Oh, trust us,' I'm sorry, we want information."
In yesterday's press release, the three environmental groups also questioned how noisy the plant operation would be, the danger it could pose to nearby homes and schools, and whether taxpayer dollars would be used in the project.
"There are some big issues for the immediate neighbors," Bright said. "They're telling us that it would only run 25 percent of the time, but there is nothing that would keep it from running full time."
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and state Rep. John Keenan, D-Salem, called HealthLink's criticism premature.
"It's two private parties that are in negotiations — it's too early even for me to offer an opinion," Driscoll said. "We have very little detail on the size of the (natural gas) plant, the size of the proposal, or whether or not they'll be seeking public funds. ... I feel odd commenting on something I haven't seen any details on."
For something with such high cleanup costs — estimated at $55 million to $75 million — a private-public partnership "would not be uncommon," Driscoll said.
No one benefits if the site is not redeveloped once Dominion leaves, Driscoll said.
"I don't think HealthLink has enough information at this time to make such a judgment," said Keenan, who is chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. "The opposition is premature without knowing all the details. ... I am happy to meet with (HealthLink) when we know what the full impact of the deal is."
Keenan said the hope is to have a deal signed between Dominion and Footprint in the next couple of months, with a new facility generating electricity by 2016.
"I'm encouraged by the feedback (I've received) from both sides," Keenan said. "... I've been an advocate, and perhaps a salesman, for that project since Dominion announced the closure. ... Part of the reason that I wanted to be chair of (the joint committee) is to make this happen."
Staff writer Bethany Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.