The spewing smokestacks of Brayton Point have always been prominent landmarks in my life. On a road trip with family or friends, seeing the brown towers spring up on the horizon, in a strange way, represented home. Of course, as a child I had no idea that the coal and gas/oil-fired plant was the largest of its kind in New England and one of the largest in the U.S. at more than 1,500 megawatts (MW). But growing up in the town of Somerset, Mass., I got so used to the billowing plumes of smoke and faint hum of machinery that it was almost as if the plant wasn’t there – as if it was just another part of the landscape.
As time passed, I heard more and more stories of cancer, asthma and other respiratory issues. Residents and nearby communities would blame Brayton Point, but no one would ever be certain of their claims. Animosity toward the plant certainly grew, but it never transitioned into any substantial action.
Flash forward to this past weekend, where 400+ protestors from around the U.S. gathered in the small town and marched to Brayton Point, calling for Mass. governor Deval Patrick to come up with a plan to shutter the plant. Organized by 350.org and Better Future Action, the peaceful crowd carried mock wind turbines and solar panels to demonstrate alternatives to coal.
Image by Jack Lepairz/WBUR
“We realize the economic impact the plant has on local communities,” said Adam Greenberg, press contact for the protest organizers, “and we believe there can be a just transitional process to shut down the plant and embrace clean energy while preserving jobs and financial benefits. We’re calling on Governor Patrick to start the process.”
44 people were voluntarily arrested for trespassing, protesting the plant’s unhealthy emissions and damage to both people and the environment.
Back in 2000, Harvard published a study commissioned by the Clean Air Task Force to investigate the health impacts of the Brayton Point and Salem Harbor power plants. Researchers found a link between plant emissions and health issues, and among the 32 million people the study included in the research, key findings of Brayton Point include:
Since the study, Dominion Resources Inc., which owns the plant, claims that it has invested nearly $1 billion to reduce the plant’s impact on the environment. (Note that Dominion is in the process of selling the plant and leaving the coal industry entirely.) However this April alone, Dominion was charged with a $13.2 million penalty for violations of the Clean Air Act (Somerset received an $800,000 settlement, which officials claimed would go towards clean energy efforts). And according to a recent report released by the Conservation Law Foundation, the plant has been struggling to make a profit since its upgrades. The 50-year-old plant is facing the same breaking point as many other coal-fired plants around the U.S. — continued operation does not make economic sense.
The town of Somerset, whose residents have varying views about renewable energy, may soon have to start thinking about its future without income from the plant, which paid the town taxes amounting to $15.9 million in fiscal 2012 and $11.9 million in fiscal 2013, about 40 percent of its annual tax revenue. “This report provides compelling evidence for the Town of Somerset, which has been seeing its tax revenue from the plant decline in recent years, to begin planning for Brayton Point’s retirement, and a healthier future for that community in all respects,” said N. Jonathan Peress, VP and director of Conservation Law Foundation’s Clean Energy and Climate Change program.
Indeed, Somerset may have to start reevaluating its priorities. I originally heard about the protest from several friends that forwarded me a link to a local newspaper. It published a front-page story — not about the issue at hand, the coal plant, but the massive planned police presence. The story included a photo of two police officers dressed in their brand-new riot gear purchased specifically for the event. According to reports, the town spent nearly $100,000 for equipment and personnel (more than 100 officers were present), and it certainly showed. As I walked the protest route, I noticed SWAT vehicles, command centers and police details at nearly every corner. According to Greenberg, protest officials had been in contact with the police for several weeks prior, and had clearly communicated their intended actions.
Several local communities have embraced renewables and their benefits, and I hope Somerset will start to do the same. Said Greenberg, “Somerset can’t afford not to address Brayton Point, and communities cannot ignore the health impacts.”
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