Mayor Kimberley Driscoll announced Tuesday night that she has assembled a working group of state and local officials to help manage the future development of the Salem Power Plant.
The good news is that Dominion, which owns the plant, has agreed to join the group.
At the first public hearing on the future of the plant, the mayor worried out loud that her greatest “nightmare” was that Dominion would not cooperate with the city and just walk away from a padlocked polluted industrial site when it shuts off the generators in 2014.
Dominion allowed the city-hired consultants to tour the plant for a couple of hours two weeks ago and, according to the mayor, has been entertaining potential buyers, mostly companies that might build natural gas power plants on a small portion of the site.
Dominion itself has no interest in re-developing the 53-acre site on the Salem waterfront.
A team of consultants, paid for by a state grant to the city, outlined in more detail the challenges and opportunities the city faces in finding economically viable uses for the site.
Being on the waterfront, the site is closely regulated by the state Department of Environmental Protection under Chapter 91 guidelines. In addition, the site is designated as a port, which means most of the potential uses must have a marine component.
“Now the real work begins,” Driscoll told the crowd that gathered at the Bentley School. She described the process and phased development of the site as “tricky.”
The consultants are finishing the final report on the potential uses of the site. The working group of state and local officials with the cooperation of Dominion can then begin identifying what uses should be pursued.
“I am excited to get this work done,” Driscoll said to the consultants.
The most controversial proposed use was for Dominion to sell 10 to 15 acres to another energy firm or a consortium of municipalities to build a natural gas generating plant. A natural gas plant could produce as much energy – 745 megawatts – as the current coal-fired plant in a much smaller area.
Financially, it would be hard for a private firm to build a successful natural gas plant, said Patty Richards with La Capra Energy Consultants.
A consortium of municipalities would be able to finance a natural gas plant cheaper and thus make it work financially, she said.
A power plant would be allowed by the state under its guidelines, the consultants said.
Several members of the public, including two from Marblehead, objected to building another fossil fuel plant on the site. But others in the audience said they were resigned to having a natural gas plant on the site.
The mayor said the city would like to develop a cruise ship industry. She said the city is actively pursuing a small cruise ship to use the Salem Wharf at Blaney Street. She seemed to like the idea of a larger cruise ship docking at a redeveloped power plant site. There is a growing cruise ship industry linking New York City up the New England coast and through the St. Lawrence Seaway to Montreal.
Two neighbors questioned if the cruise ships would create noise and odors that would be unpleasant for nearby residents.
The consultants outlined a tentative plan to divide the site into two major parts, divided by an extended Webb Street. The southern portion would be more commercial, anchored by an extended Blaney Street wharf.
“You have to start somewhere,” said James Miner with Sasaki Associates.
The northern portion would be allocated to heavy industrial, a potential power plant and marine industrial uses. The consultants said they were not sure what those uses might be.
The consultants were sure that the project faced a long list of challenges, headed by the government regulations of the site and the poor ground transportation access to the site.
The biggest challenge was the cost of cleaning up the site ($5 to $20 million) and demolishing the buildings ($60 million and up). The consultants estimated that the total remediation of the site would be about $75 million.
A portion of the costs would be recouped by selling off the scrap metal, the consultants said.
Much of the cost would be demolishing the plant itself. That led several speakers to suggest that the city consider developing all the site around the plant, but leaving the plant itself.
Dick Pabich, a Winter Island resident, proposed that the city “turn the power plant into public art” and leave it.
Driscoll was stunned at the suggestion.
“Just when I think I will never be surprised again at a public hearing (I am)," she said.