Proposed Peabody ‘peaker’ plant needs full environmental and health impact reviews, North Shore residents say

Dozens of North Shore residents and environmental activists from across the state turned out for a public meeting Wednesday night to protest the proposed Peabody fossil fuel power plant. They held signs that read “stop burning stuff at Peabody” and “Green Energy Now” and wore blue shirts to represent the clean air and blue skies they say they’re fighting for.

“I live about a mile from the pike plant,” testified Salem resident Kate Enderlin. “As a child I had a very serious problem with asthma. In the 1950s there were no inhalers, so I know how scary it is when you can’t breathe.

Enderlin, like many others who provided public comment at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection hearing, asked state officials to order comprehensive health and environmental reviews before signing off on the project’s plan to monitor carbon dioxide emissions.

“People live in a polluted area and you want to add more pollution?” said Salem resident Jim Mulloy. “We want those assessments to be done, they need to be done.”

The so-called “Peabody Peaker” plant — officially known as Project 2015-A — is a proposed 55-megawatt natural gas and diesel-fired facility that would only be turned on during peak electricity demand. It is allowed to work up to 1250 hours per year, but will probably work fewer hours than that.

The $85 million power plant is scheduled to come online sometime in 2023 and, once built, will share a small plot of land with two older gas- and oil-fired power plants near the Waters River. Its location, many pointed out during Wednesday’s meeting, would sit in and around eight state-designated environmental justice districts.

“We, the Waters River communities, share the health impacts of living with cumulative environmental pollution resulting from industrial development around the Waters River for over a century,” said Susan Smaller, a Peabody resident and co-founder of the group Breathe Clean North Shore.

“How long does a neighborhood have to last?” added state representative Sally Kerans.

The site of the proposed “peak” power plant in Peabody, which would be built next to two older gas-fired facilities. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Because of the plant’s relatively small size, it did not require a full state environmental review when the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company (MMWEC) first proposed it in 2015. However, state law has changed since then.

Beginning in March 2021, any facility with polluted air such as this located within one mile of an environmental justice community requires a full review. The 2021 Climate Act also requires state officials to consider “cumulative impacts,” or how pollution from a new facility will add to existing pollution levels. In contrast, when the Peabody facility received an air quality permit, the Department of Environmental Protection only had to determine whether the facility’s emissions exceeded state thresholds.

“The fact is, if the 2015-A project, or Peabody peaker as we call it, had been proposed this year or even last year, it would have gone through a dramatically different regulatory process — one that would have been more thorough, more transparent and more aware of the cumulative impacts,” said Mireille Bejani, co-executive director of the advocacy group Slingshot.

“It still baffles me that the state is allowing MMWEC to proceed with a project that our laws recognize is harmful to our most vulnerable communities.”

A recent study commissioned by the Massachusetts Climate Action Network found that compared to state averages, residents living within a 1.25-mile radius of the proposed facility had higher rates of cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease disease, coronary heart disease and stroke. The study failed to model how operating the new peaking plant would affect those problems, but according to health experts — some of whom testified at the hearing — it would certainly exacerbate them.

“There are very well-documented health concerns associated with fossil fuel-burning power plants,” said Sharon Cameron, director of Peabody’s Department of Health and Human Services. She listed several health impacts linked to emissions, such as cancer, asthma and heart disease, and noted that carbon pollution from these facilities also contributes to climate change, which has its own set of health impacts.

“We understand the benefits of the proposed plant in terms of providing adequate energy capacity in the region at a stable and known cost,” Cameron continued. “However, we believe it is impossible to understand the potential burdens of this project, particularly on vulnerable and disproportionately affected residents, without a full environmental impact report and comprehensive health assessment.”

Susan and Ron Smoller hold signs at a Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection hearing on the proposed Peabody
Susan and Ron Smoller hold signs at a hearing at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection on the proposed Peabody “picker” plant. (Courtesy of Mireille Bejani)

During the hearing — which was technically supposed to be limited to discussing MMWEC’s carbon dioxide monitoring plan — speakers asked state officials for a few things:

  • To carry out the full environmental review required by current legislation
  • Order a comprehensive health impact study similar to what the state did for the Weymouth compressor in 2017.
  • Require all three site plants to have publicly available monitoring plans for nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter, in addition to carbon dioxide
  • And consider revoking the project’s air quality permit, as it did for a controversial proposed biomass facility in Springfield

It is not entirely clear whether the situation in Springfield is analogous to that in Peabody. In the case of the biomass facility, the state cited serious public health and environmental justice concerns that arose after the permit was issued and said it had the right to revoke the permit due to construction delays.

Although the air quality permit for the peaking facility was issued just over two years ago, construction appears to have begun at the site. MMWEC did not respond to multiple requests for comment or information on the status of the project.

The Department of Environmental Protection has tentatively approved the Peabody facility’s carbon budget trading program emissions control plan, but won’t make a final decision until the public comment period ends Dec. 14.

According to a department spokesman, the emissions control plan is a necessary permit, but the MMWEC technically does not need to be finalized before it can begin operations.

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