By Lisa E. Crowley
BROCKTON—Opposite sides of a battle to construct or stop a proposed 350-megawatt power plant in Brockton are claiming victory after a decision by the state Department of Environmental Protection has given its approval to a needed air quality permit for the project and has rejected the city’s and opponents’ claim the area is subject to Environmental Justice restrictions.
Jonathan Winslow, project manager for Brockton Power, the company that has proposed building the $350 million natural gas plant on Oak Hill Way, said the air permit approval by the DEP is a clear sign the project will meet the environmental standards necessary for the project—despite opponents’ assertions the project will be a health and safety risk to the surrounding community.
“We cleared a major regulatory hurdle when the DEP approved the air permit,” Winslow said.
In its approval issued last month, the state DEP concluded “the project site is not located in an Environmental Justice area as determined by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.”
The approval notes the “nearest Environmental Justice areas with low income and/or minority populations are 1,000 feet to the west, 1,700 feet to the north, and 2,100 feet to the east,” and concludes, “the project site property lines do not border any Environmental Justice neighborhood. The industrial park does not include any residents and therefore is not an Environmental Justice neighborhood.”
While power plant officials count the DEP’s decision as a win, so do the opponents of the project, including Brockton Mayor Linda Balzotti.
“They are not in a good position at all,” Balzotti said.
She said she believes the city and an opponents’ group Stop The Power gained a victory because the decision also includes a stipulation that because the power plant is not under construction as of July 1, 2011 the project will need to gain another permit, Prevention of Significant Deterioration, or PSD, from the Massachusetts DEP that measures ambient air quality.
“They now have to get the PSD, there is an appeal of the air permit and we are putting that together now,” Balzotti said. “The air permit is not the be all, end all,” Balzotti said.
Eddie Byers, a leader in Stop The Power, initially believed the PSD permit would hold the power plant to a higher air quality standard, however, he is not sure what the new rules will mean.
"The PSD is another layer, another requirement they have to go through," Byers said.
Brockton Power’s Winslow said he disagrees with Byers' assertion the PSD permit will require air quality standards.
He also noted power plant officials fully expected the PSD requirement, with or without the DEP air permit approval because it was known by all parties as early as April, when Balzotti received a letter about the permit.
“We knew all along we would have to seek the PSD. The PSD is not a requirement that is a result of the DEP air permit approval,” Winslow said. “I don’t know why they think the standard is higher. Contrary to some public statements by city officials and opponents, the standards that will be used are equivalent to those used as a part of the DEP air permit process,” he said.
Gene Benson, legal counsel and services program director with Alternatives for Community and Environment, who is working with Stop The Power, said it is unclear if the PSD standards for air quality, which regulate greenhouse emissions such as carbon dioxide, will be the same because the permit is a new requirement with the state DEP.
In the past, Benson said, the state DEP regulated the PSD permit, then authority transferred to the the federal EPA and recently authority has bounced back to the state level.
Benson, who has been on vacation, said he has not had a chance to research the PSD standards, but said power plant opponents have disagreed with the state DEP’s decision on the air permit and are working on an appeal.
“We raised a number of issues during the draft and believe some of the findings are erroneous,” Benson said, noting laws do not put a cap on greenhouse gases.
“The law doesn’t prohibit air pollution. It says you can only pollute so much,” Benson said.
The PSD standards are not the only issue at dispute over the power plant and it looks as if the battle will continue at least for a few more months.
There are several suits and appeals in Superior Court and Land Court over the project and eventually Brockton City Council will have to make a decision that would allow or prevent the use of city water as a part of the project.
The most recent decision by the Energy Facilities Siting Board has favored opponents when the board rejected the use of the city’s drinking water to cool the plants’ turbines.
The power plant has offered to pay the city $3 million a year to use the drinking water after the city rejected a plan for the power plant to pay the city $500,000 per year for treated waste water to cool the turbines.
Winslow said power plant officials have requested the EFSB revisit the drinking water decision and awaits the board’s review of its request, expected in late August or September.
Many opponents of the power plant have said they hoped power plant officials would pack up and go away if opponents held out long enough or cost power plant backers enough money that an ongoing battle would not be worth it.
A source close to power plant officials said about $20 million has been spent so far to bring the power plant to Brockton, and there is no expectation that the company will fold its tent and seek another location.
Private investment firm Siemens, the company that is behind Brockton Power, according to public documents has pledged $350 million to pay for the project.
“This isn’t about money,” Winslow said. “We’ve appealed the denials that are unjust to the core. The location is zoned for an electrical plant, it’s in an industrial park. If you can’t build it there, you can’t build it anywhere,” he said.
Winslow said Brockton Power, even in the face of stalwart opposition, does not plan on going anywhere.
“This is the business we’re in,” Winslow said. “We believe this is a good project. We have made many changes to make it an even better project…and we believe it will be a great benefit to the community,” he said.
He said the site has been zoned for more than 40 years for an electrical generation plant, it will bring much needed revenues and taxes to the City of Brockton, and the project has received nearly all the major state and federal approvals necessary to build the plant and are fighting the denials of local construction, environmental and zoning permits.
According to William Bottiggi, general manager of Braintree Electrical and Light Department, which opened in June, 2009 a town-owned and operated 110-megawatt natural gas plant near the Braintree Red Line station, said off the top, the proposed Brockton power plant could generate more than $1 million per month from ISO New England, a public-private company that oversees and regulates the wholesale electricity market for New England.
Bottiggi said, while the price per kilowatt of power changes and generators can participate in an auction that could increase or decrease those revenues, but electrical plants have been paid between $4 and $4.50 per kilowatt of electricity until June when the price dropped to $3.12 per kilowatt per month, which has been locked-in until May 2012.
The Brockton power plant is expected to generate up to 350-megawatts of electricity per month, or about $1.1 million per month at $3.12 per kilowatt, if the Brockton plant reaches the 350-megawatt capacity.
“That is a payment just to operate,” Bottiggi said.
Bottiggi said the power plant would also make more money from any residential, business and commercial customers it would sell its power to, but added it is difficult to calculate how much money the power plant could generate because of fluctuations in prices, state regulations, and service packages that offer discounts for low-income and bulk users.
Power plant officials have said the plant’s electricity would be sold to about 150 to 200 customers in Connecticut. (Correction: Brockton's power plant would supply about 230,000 households with electricity to the ISO grid)
Stop The Power's Byers said opponents plan to fight the project until the very end, and believes residents against the project have an ace in the hole: the power plant’s need for drinking or treated wastewater to cool the plant’s turbines—an approval that comes from the Brockton City Council whose members, except for Councilor-at-large Todd Petti, have been against the project and have said they will reject any city water for the project.
“If the city and the residents don’t want it, it’s not going to go through,” Byers said.
(Photo above shows a 170-megawatt natural gas plant in Dighton)