Salem, Mass. power plant to close

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May 12, 2011, 7:20 pm
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(NECN: Peter Howe, Salem, Mass.) For years -- for decades, really -- environmentalists and politicians have been crusading to clean up or shut down the Salem Harbor electric generating station, a 60-year-old coal- and oil-fired plant that sends plumes of pollution over the coast and is considered a toxic eyesore in neighboring Marblehead.

But after years of having New England power-grid operators keep the plant open, saying it was critical to reliable electric supply, there's finally a firm date for the plant to close: June 2014, when plant owner Dominion says stringent new federal air-pollution laws will make the plant uneconomical to keep open. It would cost so much to upgrade the plant to meet the new rules, and the chances of it being called on to produce enough power to make it profitable are so slim that it makes sense only to close it. Dominion will shut down two of the four generating units inside the plant, about 20 percent of its capacity, by December, and the remaining 80 percent of capacity by mid-2014.

James G. "Red" Simpson, business manager of Local 326 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents about 75 of the 150 people employed at the plant, said he's convinced there is no more reprieve possible that could keep the plant open past June 2014. "At this stage of the game, absolutely not. Dominion has made it very clear they intend to close the plant in June of 2014.''

It opens a new chapter for historic Salem, but also deprives the city of its by-far biggest single taxpayer. Salem Harbor's $4.75 million yearly tax bill covers nearly 3 percent of the city budget.

Cushioning the blow somewhat is a $200,000 grant Salem got from the state to begin planning redevelopment of the 65-acre site. One possibility is an energy company converts the plant to run on natural gas -- perhaps supplemented by wind turbines right on the windy coast -- but given the state of the economy, electric demand, and power supplies and transmission capacity on the North Shore, it's doubtful anyone could make enough money to persuade investors or lenders to bankroll an upgrade.

Given the size and location, depending on how costly and complex it is to clean up the site from six decades of handling coal and oil and ash and soot, it's easy to imagine a sprawling development like Quincy's Marina Bay taking shape here, with hundreds of condominium or apartment units, a hotel, marina, restaurants, convention or event hall and even a casino if those are legalized in Massachusetts.

While in the near term the plant shutdown means about 150 people will lose their jobs, Simpson said the union is talking with Dominion about offering early retirement or enhanced severance packages. He said he's also confident it's a group of workers that can land on their feet elsewhere. "These are all highly skilled, well-trained people ... Mechanics, licensed steam operators, electricians, instrument and control technicians that are all highly trained, so their marketability, for lack of a better phrase, is very good.''

With videographer David Jacobs

Tags: Peter Howe, power plant, coal, Salem Mass.
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