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Closing of coal plant and aftermath concern in Holyoke

  • GORDON DANIELS<br/>at sunrise...the Mt. Tom Station Coal Plant on Route 5, Holyoke as seen from the railroad bridge next to the Conn. River.  This is a 0 degree morning which shows water vapor ( not pollution) coming form the stack
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Mt.Tom coal plant.
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Mt. Tom coal plant.

At a public forum Wednesday on the future of the plant, about 60 local residents and a panel of politicians, activists and experts discussed how to ensure that the contaminated site is cleaned up and that workers are taken care of, among other goals.

For many at the meeting in the Holyoke State Park Visitors Center, the predicted closure is a big victory because they have been advocating for the plant’s end, saying the plant has repeatedly violated environmental regulations and harms residents’ health.

“This is what we’ve been trying to work toward,” Drew Grande, an anti-coal organizer for the Sierra Club in Boston, said of the plant’s expected closure. “We’d like to see Holyoke move forward to plan for when the plant isn’t there.”

In addition to reducing staff and hours in recent years, Grande said the most encouraging sign that owner GDF Suez plans to close the 52-year-old plant is that it informed the company in charge of overseeing New England’s electricity that it does not plan to produce electricity in 2016-17. While the company could still technically sell energy that year, the move is similar to what some other coal plants in the state and the region have done before closing for good.

Panelist Carmen Concepción of the Holyoke community group Neighbor to Neighbor told the audience through a translator that she suffers from asthma, as does one in four children in Holyoke. The retired nurse blames the coal smoke and the toxins it contains.

“Once the coal plant closes, we want to be sure the company that owns the coal plant cleans up the site, so they don’t leave it contaminated,” she said.

Rory Casey, legislative aide to state Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, told residents that Vega has been in talks with GDF Suez, which is based in Paris. The company said it has a trust fund set aside to remediate the site when it does close the plant.

“From everything they’ve said ... they’re not just going to walk away. They’re going to stay and make sure the site is clean,” Casey said. “And when that happens, those jobs should go to local people. It’d be wonderful if the people at the plant could be retrained to do that.”

Whether that’s possible, those at the forum agreed that the plant’s 18 employees should not be left unemployed. Action for a Healthy Holyoke organizer Rick Purcell of 99 Martin St. said it is important that Holyoke work to create more green jobs for them and others.

“Holyoke is the original green city — it was built on hydroelectricity,” Casey said. He said that creating green jobs, whether that means using the cleaned-up land for agriculture or green energy production, is something the community and its leaders need to determine. “When this plant closes — and it’s going to close — that’s 80 acres of land that’s right along the Connecticut River. We need to continue these conversations about what we want to happen there.”

He did say it’s unlikely that the plant could be repurposed as a gas-burning electricity plant, as will probably happen to a coal plant in Salem that is currently going through the decommissioning process.

Of the five coal-burning electricity plants that were once in the state, only three remain — Holyoke, Salem and Somerset — state Sen. Michael R. Knapik, R-Westfield, said at the forum. He is a member of the state’s Plant Revitalization Task Force and is working on creating a process for decommissioning coal plants, since there are no state regulations for it now.

“These coal plants are not economically feasible in a state that has committed itself to green energy,” Knapik said. The Mount Tom Coal Plant has the capacity to produce 146 megawatts of electricity per hour, but because it is less cost-effective than burning natural gas, it is only operational during peak energy usage.

Conservation Law Foundation senior attorney Shanna Cleveland said she has watched two coal plants go through the decommissioning process and she commended the residents at the forum for standing up for their interests as Holyoke prepares to start the process.

“In both situations, the conversations primarily occurred between elected officials and the owner of the facility and there haven’t been opportunities for the public the be engaged, to be at the table asking questions,” she said. “So I think you have a great opportunity.”

Roger Sorkin of Park Street in Florence told those at the event to remember that there are potential allies in Northampton and other neighboring communities who could be enlisted in their efforts.

“I’d encourage everyone here to think about this as a regional issue. In Northampton, people tend to get very agitated about some issues, but then they don’t show up to a meeting in Holyoke about a coal plant with a 30-mile if not more radius of emissions,” he said. “So please, reach out.”

Casey agreed that finding support “north of the tofu curtain” in Northampton could be important.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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