The end is near for the last coal-fired power plant in western Massachusetts. Mount Tom Station in Holyoke is to shut down by the end of the month bringing a victory for environmentalists and a quandary about what will become of the plant’s property along the Connecticut River.
Once a significant employer and one of the largest taxpayers in Holyoke when it began generating electricity in 1960, Mount Tom Station had been limping toward obsolescence for the last several years. The price of burning coal versus natural gas meant the plant was only being used about a dozen times a year to meet energy demand spikes. The announcement last June that it was being shut down for good surprised no one. About two dozen people lost their jobs.
The city launched a formal study earlier this week to propose the best reuse for the plant site. Mayor Alex Morse said the discussion will focus on how to create jobs and provide tax revenue or other benefits to the city.
" We are optimistic we are going to be able to come up with a plan and then make it happen."
Morse said a citizens advisory group was created three years ago to suggest future uses for the power plant property and now a consultant has been hired to help determine what would be feasible.
" We were proactive," said Morse. " It is a win-win for clean air in our community and potentially the economy. I have concerns for the people who have worked there for many years and want to help them and their families."
Ideas for reusing the site that have been floated publicly include solar power generation and a public park with access to the river.
Marcos Marrero, Director of Planning and Economic Development for Holyoke, said there are significant challenges to any redevelopment.
" It is a really tough site because it is right next to the river. Some of it is in a flood plain and there are constraints from a conservation prospective and also contamination."
The owner of the plant, GDF-SUEZ, has not said what it plans to do with the property. Marrero said company officials have said they will participate in the reuse discussions.
" Part of the 128 acre site lends itself to a big development, but it is very constrained," said Marrero.
A coalition of local activists and national organizations, including the Sierra Club and Conservation Law Foundation, pressed for years to shut down the power plant claiming smokestack emissions contributed to smog problems in the lower Pioneer Valley.
Coalition member Carlos Rodriguez is pressing now for the plant owner to clean up the contaminated site.
" Not only close the plant, but clean the land because it is bad for the water, the people fishing, and it is bad for everyone."
The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center is funding the $100,000 reuse study. Alicia Barton, the CEO of the state agency, said there will be public discussion meetings and workshops held over the next several months to produce a report.
" This is really going to be a community led process," said Barton. " We hope to bring additional expertise and information."
The agency funded a study on the reuse of a coal-burning power plant in Salem, Ma. That plant is being converted to natural gas. But Holyoke officials say it would not be economically feasible to do that with Mount Tom because there is no readily available connection to a natural gas supply.