SALEM — Footprint Power has dropped the other shoe, announcing that the acquisition of the Salem Harbor Station power plant from Dominion Energy Inc. is a done deal.
And a day after announcing they had bought Salem Harbor Station, the new owners were at the power plant Monday, strolling the plant floor.
“They were walking around, talking to everybody,” said Rick Robey, assistant business manager of Local 326 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents about 80 workers at the waterfront plant.
“The change in ownership went into effect Saturday,” Footprint announced in a prepared statement. The company also confirmed that public meetings will be held to discuss the new owners’ plans, which currently include an end to the coal plant’s operation in May 2014.
After that, the plant will be razed and the site cleaned up.
“Even in advance of the acquisition,” the statement said, “Footprint began the process of developing a new, clean, efficient natural gas-fired power plant on the Salem Harbor site.”
Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry, D-Peabody, cheered the development.
“It’s a great step forward,” he said. “Our main goal is to keep that piece of land on the tax rolls for the foreseeable future.”
Berry was among those, including Salem Rep. John Keenan and Gov. Deval Patrick, who supported recent legislation on Beacon Hill designed to encourage the cleanup of the site and ease Salem’s finances during the transition. He acknowledged environmental concerns regarding a plant that will continue to burn fossil fuels even after a new plant is built.
He also suggested that shifting from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas is an improvement.
“It will make it better,” he said. “Less harmful to the environment.”
Footprint’s plans include taking only a portion of the site now used to burn coal and using the land to build a gas-powered plant able to produce 630 megawatts of power. The current plant has an output of 748 megawatts.
“By demolishing the existing facility when the remaining units are removed from service, remediating the site, and scaling back power generation to a small portion of the site, we look forward to the residents of Salem having access to their waterfront for the first time in generations,” Footprint President Scott Silverstein said in the company’s statement.
The pollution created by the coal-burning process has generated years of controversy, with environmentalists linking it to health concerns, including in the town Manchester and in Gloucester’s village of Magnolia, from which the plant is ominously visible from across the water. Even the prospect of moving from coal to natural gas has failed to mollify some critics.
Activist Jane Bright of Marblehead and HealthLink recently told the Salem News that she would be happy with no plant.
“If they said, ‘We’ll put it up for 10 years and take it down, as a bridge to a cleaner future,’ it would be a different conversation,” Bright said. “... It could be here a very long time, well after gas is no longer viewed as having any environmental benefit.”
On the other hand, Pat Gozemba of Salem Alliance for the Environment (SAFE) welcomed the news.
“We are optimistic about the gas plant,” she said. “We are happy that the coal plant is closing.”
Footprint is a New Jersey-based company that seeks to make older plants like the one in Salem, which went into operation in 1952, viable again. The company pledged to work closely with the community in building the new gas plant.
The Footprint executives who visited the plant Monday were already seeking ideas for other uses for the 60-acre site.
They said they are “open to any kind of suggestions for development for the rest of the grounds,” union leader Robey said. “I think they were serious when they were asking for ideas and opinions.”
Although the Footprint executives have declined interview requests, they also ran an advertisement in Tuesday’s Salem News introducing themselves to North Shore residents. They discuss their plans to keep the coal- and oil-fired plant running through May 2014 and, once it is closed, to “demolish it and remediate the site.”
In their Monday visit to the plant and at past meetings, Furniss and Silverstein told workers there won’t be any layoffs between now and the plant closing in two years, Robey said. They also discussed retraining possibilities and potential jobs at other sites run by the new company overseeing the plant.
“They’re pretty nice guys,” Robey said. “They seem pretty open and pretty honest.”
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