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Activists want to convert Mount Tom coal plant

  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Mt.Tom coal plant.
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Mt. Tom coal plant.
  • 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

Their quest comes as the state itself undertakes a review of coal-fueled plants in Massachusetts.

The emissions at the Holyoke plant contribute to climate change and increase the rate of asthma in the vicinity, they say. The plant, which opened in 1960, is in operation only at times of peak demand, because electricity produced from natural gas is much less expensive.

“Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel there is, and it’s ridiculous that we’re still using a 17th-century fuel source when we have so many other options available,” said Kim Finch of Easthampton. She volunteers with the Sierra Club and plans to speak at a meeting of the Easthampton City Council on the subject this month.

“I want to let them know this is an issue people care about,” she said. “Other volunteers in Northampton and Amherst will be doing the same thing.”

The Mt. Tom coal plant can burn 1,200 tons of coal daily, and has the capacity to generate 146 megawatts of electricity, but it usually runs at far below its capacity, said Charles Burnham, a spokesman for GDF Suez, the company that owns the plant. It is one of only two coal plants in Massachusetts, and the other one, Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, is on the market after changing hands just seven years ago.

About 18 percent of the electricity in New England was produced by coal-fired plants in 2000, and now only 6 percent is. In the U.S. as a whole, about 43 percent of electricity comes from coal.

There are no plants to sell or close or retrofit the Mt. Tom coal plant, Burnham said. But the Legislature has created a task force to look at the state’s energy needs and will report back at the end of next year, he said.

The company investigated converting the Mt. Tom plant to burn natural gas but concluded that it was not economically feasible, Burnham said.

The Mt. Tom plant has been in operation for only about a third the number of hours that it was just two years ago. While it was in operation for 5,779 hours in 2009 and 5,260 hours in 2010, that number plummeted to 1,676 hours in 2011 and was only 887 hours through June of this year, Burnham said.

The chief reason for coal’s decline is the availability of vast amounts of lower-cost natural gas, largely because of the new technology of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which has its own set of environmental questions. The cost of producing a kilowatt-hour of electricity with natural gas is about 8 cents, compared to 13 cents for coal, said Drew Grande, a Sierra Club organizer.

Another reason for the decline of coal-generated power is that Massachusetts has invested heavily in energy efficiency, putting insulation in buildings and making appliances that use less electricity, he said.

Grande said the Sierra Club is trying to put pressure on Gov. Deval Patrick to ask the Department of Environmental Protection to require the Mt. Tom plant to get a new permit. During the rare times when the plant is in operation, the sulfur dioxide and mercury it emits are endangering the health of all Pioneer Valley residents, he said.

“It’s like turning off and on an old dirty car,” he said. “You turn it on and get a huge puff of blue smoke that smells bad,” he said.

The plant is a major contributor to Holyoke’s tax base, and the Sierra Club would like that to continue through retooling the site to produce renewable energy. The site is not ideal for windmills, but it could generate electricity with photovoltaic solar panels, Grande said.

“This is an opportunity for the green energy economy to get a hold here,” he said.

Rick Purcell of Holyoke has been knocking on doors to get thousands of signatures on a petition to shut down the Mt. Tom plant by 2014. He was among those walking up Mt. Holyoke last Saturday in an event designed to spur discussion of the plant’s future.

Purcell had asthma when he was growing up, but it abated when he became an adult, he said. But when he moved to Holyoke in 1991, his asthma came back.

His group, Action for a Healthy Holyoke, plans to deliver the petitions to the CEO of GDF Suez. The company has made significant investments in green energy elsewhere, and should give up on the coal industry, he said.

“We don’t want to lose the tax base and we don’t want jobs to be lost,” Purcell said. “We want to create something that’s green and sustainable and isn’t hurting people’s health.”

Burnham said the Mt. Tom plant is operating only at times of peak electricity use, generally during heat waves in summer or when other plants are offline, largely because of the decline in natural gas prices. He said the company invested $55 million in technology to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, mercury, hydrocloric acid and hydrogen fluoride.

He said the plant employs 29 people who are there whether or not it is operating.

Asked about the asthma allegations, he said, “We’re meeting all state and federal emissions regulations under law when we’re operating the plant.”

Attorney Peter Vickery of Amherst said he helped the Sierra Club draft two bills in the last legislative session, though neither was enacted. One would phase out the Mt. Tom plant, and the other would regulate hydraulic fracturing, which he said could become common in Massachusetts. “There is a lot of natural gas here, but it’s deep underground and now the technology is not there to extract it in an economic way,” he said. “But it’s feasible that because the technology is advancing quickly in the near future, extracting gas will become more likely.”

Vickery recently wrote to Richard Sullivan, the state environment secretary, asking him to speak to GDF Suez officials to explore other uses of the site.

But he acknowledged that Mt. Tom’s contribution to climate change is small. “For every coal plant we close, they open five in China,” he said.

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