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(NECN: Peter Howe, Salem, Mass.) - For millions of tourists, Salem, Mass. brings up memories of witches and colonial history, clipper ships sailing to China, and much more from its 388 years of history. But for others, it also brings to mind the hulking, 60-year-old coal-burning power plant with its menacing stacks looming over the waterfront.
“It’s a beautiful view from the plant-- we understand the view of the plant has not been quite so beautiful,” Footprint Power CEO Peter Furniss said in an interview Thursday. “But we're trying to get that resource back into the hands of Salem.”
Footprint, which took over ownership of Salem Harbor in August 2012, is almost ready to launch an $800 million dollar redevelopment plan that would replace the coal plant with a cleaner-burning natural-gas-fired power plant occupying just one quarter of the 65-acre site, leaving the rest open for new parks, walkways, and marine industrial uses.
“We have all of our permits in hand, all of them unanimously granted” by state energy officials, Furniss said.
After a major settlement over the plant’s emissions with the Conservation Law Foundation – Footprint’s agreeing to cut pollution and shut down generation in 2049 – Footprint’s plan faces just one last lawsuit from a group of Salem and Marblehead residents.
State Representative John Keenan, a Salem Democrat, who appeared with Prentiss at the North Shore Chamber of Commerce Business Expo in Danvers, said he is itching to get the project going.
Said Keenan: “How else are you going to tear down that structure? How else are you going to replace the 700 megawatts of power you need? How else are you going to replace the $5 million of property taxes” that the generating station provides to the city of Salem’s budget?
Salem is, in some ways, a preview of a similar saga to come across the state in Somerset, across Mount Hope Bay from Fall River, where the Brayton Point power plant – also coal-fired – is now due to shut down in 2017.
It generates more than twice as much power as Salem Harbor, and occupies five times as much land right on the water, and as yet, there’s been no energy company like Footprint Power stepping up with a workable redevelopment plan that can replace the generating capacity to be lost and generate sufficient profits to pay for dismantling the defunct coal plants and cleaning and redeveloping the site.
Footprint Power has been saying it hoped to have the new plant up and running by June 2016 and the early-1950s plant torn down by 2017. Prentiss indicated that date may slip.
“We’re hopeful that we'll be able to get the plant up and running thereabouts,” Furniss said. “A lot of this depends on how the appeals fall out.”
Some development planners and investors have wondered whether Salem Harbor could become a new version of something like Marina Bay in the Squantum section of Quincy, a waterfront condominium community with marinas and shops and restaurants. Salem zoning, however, requires the site have industrial marine uses, not homes or retail, and Prentiss said the one-way-in-and-out road access to that part of Salem would make traffic-intensive housing and office/retail unworkable.
Rather, their focus is on using the plant’s deep-water port that now serves coal barges for cruise ships full of tourists who’d come ashore to walk around and tour Salem and barges serving deep-water offshore wind power development.
“We don't want to create any kind of competitive tension between our site and the central business district, and we don't think we need to, because there are lot of other potential uses that are marine industrial,” Furniss said.
Keenan said he’s eager to visualize the new Salem Harbor of 2024.
“Go down to the waterfront,” Keenan said, “and there's going to be a power plant humming, there are going to be cruise shops coming in, there are going to be neighbors from the Derby Street neighborhood walking down to the waterfront for the first time in fifty years.”
With videographer John E. Stuart