Thursday, June 12, 2014
Environmentalists are celebrating word that the Valley’s coal-fired power plant, a “dirty dozen” energy producer that received a $55 million upgrade just years ago, will close this October.
But the news means the end of 28 jobs at the Mount Tom Power Plant, owned by GDF Suez Energy North America. Though the plant has been a prime target for environmentalists, and often cited by the state for contaminating the Valley’s air and water, groups that have called for its closing say they want the best outcome for workers as well as environmental gains.
“From a public health perspective it’s great. We’re concerned about what’s next for the workers and the community,” said James McCaffrey, senior campaign representative for Beyond Coal Massachusetts, a project of the Sierra Club. “We want to support whatever the workers want. That’s an important piece of the puzzle here.”
In the fight to close the Mount Tom plant, a key ally to Beyond Coal Massachusetts has been Action for a Healthy Holyoke, a coalition of groups that includes Neighbor to Neighbor, Nuestras Raices, Toxics Action Center, the Conservation Law Foundation, WMass Jobs for Justice and the Sierra Club.
“The community has really led on this,” McCaffrey said.
Lena Entin, a Holyoke-based organizer with Neighbor to Neighbor, said that since two-thirds of her group’s members suffer from asthma, the particulate matter released by the coal plant has long been an enemy.
But she quickly added, in an interview Monday with the Gazette, that members of the group want GDF Suez to provide fair severance packages for the relatively small number of workers who remain, many of whom have been with the plant for decades.
“Every step of the way, we’ve been calling for a just transition for the workers,” Entin said.
Members of Neighbor to Neighbor got a hint last month, in a meeting with GDF Suez, that the plant might be shuttered. “They told us they were considering solar,” Entin said.
GDF Suez said Monday the plant, which has been in operation since 1960, will close in October after more than three years of on-and-off operation.
GDF Suez spokeswoman Carol Churchill said the Holyoke plant cannot compete with cheaper natural gas, and confirmed that the company will consider converting the plant to producing electricity from solar energy.
Churchill said workers at the Holyoke plant will be encouraged to apply for openings at GDF Suez’s other plants, including hydroelectric facilities in New England. GDF Suez, based in Paris, is believed to be the world’s largest utility.
Still, the loss of union jobs in the region removes relatively high-paying employment, said Brian Kenney, business manager and financial secretary for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, International 455. He noted that the contract covering workers at the Holyoke plant, which expires in October, includes provisions for severance payments.
“These employees are lifelong career people, and those jobs are cradle-to-grave jobs and they will be tough to replace,” Kenney said.
He added that the only openings the union is aware of are in Texas.
Several months ago, a larger coal-fired plant in Somerset, the Brayton Power Plant, owned by Energy Capital Partners, announced that it will close at the end of 2017.
That plant, with a capacity of 1,500 megawatts, is substantially larger than the 146-megawatt Mount Tom plant, whose primary smokestack greets travelers along Interstate Route 91.
Churchill said the company will work with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, along with the city of Holyoke, to bring an end to operations.
Entin, of Neighbor to Neighbor, said the community group is concerned that the shutdown be carried out properly. She said one member, Carmelo Diaz, has spoken of how a coal-fired plant in his native Puerto Rico polluted its surroundings after it closed when toxic materials leached from its smokestack. The plant site houses tons of coal ash, which enviromentalists say is a prime polluter of rivers and streams in the U.S.
“We are calling on the company to do a thorough cleanup, with soil testing,” Entin said.
Health effects related to the plant’s operation have been a main concern for neighborhood and environmental groups. Entin said another Neighbor to Neighbor member, Rosa Gonzalez, reports being hospitalized three times in the last two years for asthma attacks.
McCaffrey, of the Beyond Coal Campaign, said studies by the Sierra Club have linked sulfur dioxide emission from coal-fired plants as triggers for the breathing disorder. A 2009 report from the state Department of Public Health found that Holyoke has a higher rate of asthma and asthma-related emergency room visits than the state as a whole.
“It’s good news to stop coal-burning in the Pioneer Valley and reduce asthma rates,” McCaffrey said.
Carlos Rodriguez of Holyoke, a Neighbor to Neighbor board member also active with Action for a Healthy Holyoke, said his wife suffers from asthma.
But he, too, said the plant’s closing raises issues that go beyond health and the environment. “While we are very glad to know our air will be cleaner, responsible retirement (of the plant) also means working with our community and the workers for a cleanup and transition,” he said in a statement provided to the Gazette by Action for a Healthy Holyoke.
Kim Finch, a Sierra Club member in the Valley who is part of Action for a Healthy Holyoke, called the plant’s closing “a testament to the power of community organizing and a strong step on Massachusetts’ path to be a clean energy leader.”
GDF Suez had earlier sought approval to halt power production in 2016-17 in a process with the regional power grid, ISO New England, known as delisting. That step is often associated with plans to discontinue power production entirely, but until Monday, no one knew what GDF Suez was planning.
Five years ago, local environmentalists applauded as the plant’s new owner invested as much as $55 million in pollution controls. Despite those measures, the plant has continued to face sanctions for environmental lapses.
GDF Suez was fined for releases into the Connecticut River. In 2011, after the investment in pollution controls, the plant reached an agreement with the office of the state attorney general and the DEP to pay penalties for thousands of Clean Air Act violations from 2005 to 2010.
Last year, legislation enabled the state’s Clean Energy Center to allot $100,000 to Holyoke to work on shaping plans for reuse of the Mount Tom site in the event of its closing. That day now approaches. McCaffrey, of Beyond Coal Massachusetts, said he believes that years of progress on developing renewable power sources in Massachusetts, such as the expanding Solarize Massachusetts program that has signed up many households in Northampton, Amherst and other Valley communities, helped seal the fate of the coal plant.
He said he is eager to hear more about GDF Suez’s ideas about converting the Holyoke site to solar power generation. “We think that is very exciting and very visionary.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.