Somerset Power gets OK to begin coal gasification

John Moss

The Department of Environmental Protection on Thursday gave the green light to Somerset Power LLC’s plan to begin coal gasification at its Riverside Avenue plant.

Outraged environmentalists and community activists called the decision unacceptable and said it significantly undermined the state’s global warming policy.

Earlier this month, the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs declined to order a Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act review of the plant. The Conservation Law Foundation, which lobbies on environmental issues in New England, asked for the review.

“In a final permit issued by DEP, the commonwealth said it would allow the power plant to adopt experimental coal plasma gasification technology and continue releasing carbon dioxide at current levels,” said the foundation’s spokesman Colin Durrant. “The decision runs contrary to a 2007 policy adopted by the Patrick administration to reduce global warming pollution.

The coal-fire Somerset plant was set to be shut down or powered with cleaner emissions by 2010 under the state’s “Filthy Five” regulation, intended to cut down on the region’s global warming pollution.

“We are outraged by this decision,” said Westport resident Dave Dionne of Green Futures. “This community has endured the presence of coal-fired power plants for decades. Prolonging the life of one of these plants in our backyard is a clear example of environmental injustice. Public opposition is really mounting — this fight is far from over.”

Durrant claimed that the  DEP’s decision “represents the latest step in the Patrick administration’s unwillingness to protect against backsliding on global warming pollution from the Somerset Plant.”

Earlier this month, despite the warnings of prominent climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, Energy and Environment Secretary Ian Bowles rejected a petition filed by CLF, Clean Water Action, the Toxics Action Center and Environment Massachusetts requesting a full-scale environmental review to assess the impact of the Somerset proposal on greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

“It’s incomprehensible to us that the Patrick administration has allowed one of the state’s oldest coal power plants to backtrack on its promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and instead has given it the go-ahead to continue releasing unacceptable amounts of harmful carbon dioxide into the air,” said Shanna Vale, a CLF staff attorney.

“Today’s decision turns a blind eye to the administration’s own policy on global warming pollution and takes us a step backward in our collective duty to minimize the catastrophic public health and environmental impacts of climate change.”

“This decision is a clear step backward for clean energy in Massachusetts,” said Katy Krottinger, clean energy organizer at Clean Water Action. “The failure of the Department of Environmental Protection to hold the plant owners to their original commitment to either re-power with cleaner fuel or shut down is deeply disappointing, particularly since the proposed technology is untested and has never been applied to coal burning in this country,” she stated.

“At a time when we should be reducing our global warming pollution, the DEP’s decision is disappointing because it could commit Massachusetts to another half century of burning coal and delays progress towards a new, clean energy future,” said Ben Wright at Environmental Massachusetts.

“There’s nothing clean about coal. This decision takes us in the wrong direction on clean energy policy and protecting public health,” said Sylvia Broude, a community organizer at the Toxics Action Center.

Somerset Power, which is owned by NRG Energy, the 10th largest American power company, wants to retrofit its 50-year-old boiler to allow for a plasma gassification process which breaks down coal into its component parts before converting it into energy.

CLF claims the process will product 28 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions that could be avoided if the plant was closed.

NRG Energy has said the foundation’s pollution estimate is skewed because it compares emissions from gasification to a total shutdown of the plant, not to continued operation as a coal-fired facility.

Somerset selectmen William Meehan, Lorne Lawless and Eleanor Gagnon reiterated their support of the power plant’s project after the state refused CLF’s request for a full review of the plant.

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