SALEM — A top union official blasted the owner of Salem Harbor Station during a public meeting Thursday night on the future of the power plant property after the facility closes in three years.

"Dominion couldn't care less about the City of Salem," said James "Red" Simpson, business manager of IBEW Local 326, which represents more than 100 workers at the waterfront facility.

"They don't care about employees," he told a crowd of 100 at Bentley School, which sits in the shadow of the plant's tall stacks. "They're going to do what's right for Dominion. ... I met with them (yesterday). They want to do absolutely nothing for the employees. ... It pains me."

In May, Dominion announced it will close two of the plant's four generating units by the end of this year and shut down the entire facility in June 2014. Company officials have told the city they don't plan to develop the site but have shared little else at this point, according to Mayor Kim Driscoll.

Simpson was one of several speakers to take on the Virginia energy giant during a public hearing with consultants who are doing a $200,000, state-funded study to develop realistic options for the 62-acre site that has been a coal- and oil-burning plant for more than 50 years.

Several residents called on Dominion to help with any environmental cleanup, which is estimated to cost $20 million. Demolition of the huge, aging power plant buildings will cost much more, consultants said.

"They made the mess; they made the profit," Michael Conley said. "Let them clean it up."

"I think it's important to send a message they can't cut and run," Jim Comeau said.

Dominion appears to be under no legal obligation to clean up the plant, according to Driscoll and consultants. The plant study, which will be completed in the early fall, is being done in the hope it will encourage the sale and development of the site, they said.

"Our biggest challenge," Driscoll said, "is to make sure the site doesn't sit abandoned for many, many years. ... My biggest fear is seeing padlocks go on (the gates) ..."

"If a padlock goes on, I fear (the closed plant) will be there for years," she said, citing the example of the Universal Steel property on Bridge Street, which has been abandoned and undeveloped for years.

Several speakers praised Driscoll and other local leaders for having the foresight to initiate this study long before the plant closes.

There were also calls for local leaders to be "visionary" and "bold."

"I would, at this point, swing for the fences," resident Geoff Millar said.

A few speakers did.

"I would like you to think about wind offshore," said Pat Gozemba, a local environmental activist.

Several speakers favored converting Salem Harbor Station to a natural gas plant, noting that it is next to a transmission substation and near an offshore gas pipeline. But others opposed that idea, arguing that natural gas is not a good option.

"Natural gas should be taken off the table ..." said Lisa Abbate, a Salem resident who founded a group, A Vision for Salem, which fought to close the plant and commissioned a study on development options for the site.

Adam Segal, a member of the city's Renewable Energy Task Force, reminded the audience that regional energy officials have announced plans to replace the power lost from Salem Harbor Station by upgrading transmission lines by 2014.

"Why are we still considering gas generation ...?" he asked.

There were some who favored manufacturing or a marine industrial use like shipping, considering the power plant has a deep-water port and that Salem is one of the state's 11 designated port areas.

"We have a tremendous opportunity there," Karen Kahn said.

The subject of taxes kept being raised and how to replace the $4.75 million being paid by Dominion, the city's biggest taxpayer.

While the challenges are great, considering the property is owned by Dominion and not the city, Driscoll and others said planning the future of this site also presents great opportunities.

"I don't want people to think we're not swinging for the fences and not trying to be bold," the mayor said, "but we're also trying" to be realistic.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Alex Papali of Clean Water Action, a Boston-based environmental group, who spoke near the close of the two-hour meeting. "There is potentially a national precedent you could set here. I just urge you to set the bar as high as possible."

Tom Dalton may be contacted at tdalton@gloucestertimes.com.

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