An inconvenient detailBy Dinah Cardin
Friday, March 02, 2007 - Updated: 10:44 AM EST
A new study finds the Salem power plant is not the top source of North Shore’s air pollution – smaller businesses, cars, buses and boats all share the blame.
Since the late ’90s, members of the North Shore environmental group Healthlink have dogged the various owners of Salem’s power plant. Over the years, longtime employees of the plant and the nonprofit group have come to know each other’s names and faces. At public meetings, they have worked together through a number of issues and policy changes.
Healthlink’s Web site even features the trademark smokestacks on Fort Avenue and a photo of men, women and children holding hands as they stare out at the billowing smoke.
The grassroots group was formed in 1998 in response to the coal- and gas-fired power plant and aims to connect the dots, or link, health with the environment. They claim the plant has cut its emissions by 50 percent since their formation. The group considered it a personal victory when the owner of the plant recently agreed to comply with stricter emissions standards set for the dirtiest power plants in the state.
The plant started burning cleaner coal, emitting fewer toxins, in October of 2005 and will be required to provide a long-term plan for operation and environmental compliance by 2008.
Now, the findings of an air quality study in Salem, Beverly and Marblehead, a project three years in the making, show increased rates of asthma, heart disease and many cancers. The final results of the North Shore Air Inventory Report have just been released to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which funded the study.
But these health problems are not solely linked to the 1950s-era power plant. To the group’s surprise, smaller commercial businesses can be blamed almost equally for the release of toxic chemicals into the environment.
Small businesses such as dry cleaners, nail salons and gas stations collectively produce 14 percent of the area’s air toxins, compared to the 15 percent produced by large industrial and manufacturing plants, such as the power plant, says Cindy Keegan, an environmental engineer and Salem resident who headed the project.
“Those with Healthlink don’t want to come out as having been barking up the wrong tree all these years,” says Keegan. “The power plant comes out as the number two priority. We’re just saying yeah, there are other issues. The power plant is still the single cause. That’s what regulators do, that’s what community activists do. It’s a lot easier to push on one door than 5,000.”
The largest amount of pollution in these congested communities is from cars, city buses, boats and even engine-powered machines like lawn mowers and leaf blowers.
As a result, environmental groups are working with the Northeast Transit Planning and Management Association to make commuting by train, bus and car more efficient.
The air quality project began in the fall of 2003 as a result of the failing grades Essex County received in recent years from the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report. The EPA has also shown Essex County to be at high risk for diseases caused by toxic air pollutants. Meanwhile, the Environmental Defense organization rates Essex County among the top 10 percent of dirtiest counties in the U.S.
Funded by a $50,000 Healthy Communities grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the study compiled local data that has not been collectively studied before now.
“We’re saying, ‘HHere’s all the data and we didn’t invent the data,’” says Keegan. “We just took the data directly and tried to spit it back out in a way that was more understandable. It’s not some small slice. It’s everything. The hope is that it’s seen as comprehensive and scientific and a much more level view of the whole picture.”
Healthlink’s study was sort of a “pilot project” of a larger national effort by the EPA, according to MaryBeth Smuts, regional air toxicologist at the EPA’s Boston offices.
Community Actions for a Renewed Environment has been ongoing for three years, she says, and allows members of a community to inventory their pollution sources and compile the data themselves.
Nearly 30 communities across the nation are doing the same sort of study, including the community of Holyoke.
It helps those in the community know where to take action, such as encouraging the construction of bike trails. Sometimes the findings can be a surprise, says Smuts.
“The smokestacks do certainly draw the attention. But when you really hunker down and look at it there are other sources that may not be regulated,” she says.
Volunteers examined EPA data, as well as numbers from the state’s health department and the state Department of Environmental Protection. A street-by-street survey of pollution sources was mapped by Salem State College faculty, staff and students, members of Salem Alliance For the Environment, students from Salem High School and members of the Salem Point neighborhood Association.
Healthlink members teamed up with nursing students and faculty from Salem State College to compile health statistics and air toxins.
On the bright side, the findings show a general decline in air pollution in the three communities of Salem, Beverly and Marblehead. However, the populations are more negatively affected, says Keegan.
Salem saw an 81 percent higher rate of asthma-related emergency room visits and hospitalizations for preschool aged children than the rest of the state.
Beverly and Salem both showed increased cardiovascular mortality rates when compared with the rest of the state. Lung cancer incidence and mortality were also elevated in Salem when compared to the rest of Massachusetts.
At a public meeting in November of 2005, some of the power plant’s staff were pleasantly surprised at the comprehensive nature of the then ongoing study, said Keegan, and seemed glad the study wasn’t just pointing the finger at them.
“This is the big picture and yeah, they are a part of it,” says Keegan, who sometimes does environmental consulting for industries and city governments.
Whatever industries are putting into the air, they are wasting, she says: “They don’t want to do that. Whatever is going out as hazardous waste or out the smoke stacks, it’s money out the door.”
When contacted this week, Dominion Energy spokesperson Dan Genest said, “Fossil fired power stations are not the only source of pollution. Any approach to cleaning the environment needs to be holistic. We’re willing to do our part.”
Still, Genest said his company hasn’t had the chance to go over the report in depth. After those at Dominion took “a quick look,” at the published findings on the Web site www.nsair.org, says Genest, they thought it appeared that the data was from 1999 and earlier.
“Since that time, we have made significant reductions in air emissions at Salem power station,” he says, “and those are not captured in this study.”
Through the years, the Salem Harbor Power plant has been deemed the largest pollutant in Essex County and one of five largest polluting power plants in the state.
Despite the report’s results, local environmentalists still point to it as the largest single polluter and say policy changes have been mostly talk with little action.
“Now we are monitoring the plants as they engage in foot-dragging and legal appeals to delay the implementation of the state regulations,” Pat Gozemba, a member of Salem Alliance for the Environment and Heathlink wrote this week in an e-mail.
In the coming months, Healthlink will monitor mercury emissions from the plant as well as watch for compliance with policy changes.
After ranking the sources of dangerous pollutants, Healthlink offers suggestions on their Web site on how to improve air quality to residents, citizen groups and municipal leaders.
For the power plant, they advise residents and municipalities to support renewable energy options and continue to require emission controls and the efficient operation of the plant.
According to a recent article in Fortune Magazine, more than 150 new coal-fired plants are planned nationwide. Across the country, concerned citizens will try to make sense of increased pollution and looming smokestacks.
In Austin, Texas a judge ruled that Gov. Rick Perry overstepped his authority by putting 15 proposed coal plants on the fast track after hundreds of protesters lined the state capitol steps earlier last month, in favor of wind and solar power. However, TXU Corp. has since decided to scrap plans for eight of those plants after the company was sidetracked by a multi-billion dollar buyout deal.
However, in southwest Missouri, newspapers chronicle the progress of a turbine and generator arriving on barges from Japan, with little mention of those speaking out against a new coal-fired plant.
At least in Salem, the relationship between environmentalists and the power plant is an old and familiar one, with clear and defined roles on each side. The future of the plant and its policies continue to play out in local and state politics.
Environmental groups were thrilled when Gov. Deval Patrick signed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative shortly after he took office in January. Former governor Mitt Romney declined signing the agreement to reduce emissions between New England and the Mid-Atlantic states for fear it would drive up consumer electric bills.
Though they were both big backers of Patrick during the governor’s race, Mayor Kim Driscoll and Rep. John Keenan scrambled to issue a joint statement, calling for the governor to spare Salem from losing revenue from its number one taxpayer.
Driscoll has just begun renegotiating the tax agreement between the city and Dominion Energy. City leaders fear an emissions cap could make the plant less valuable and cut into the city’s revenue.
Still, Driscoll received an award from Salem Alliance for the Environment in December for initiating new city environmental policies. Salem beat out the city of Worcester in a competition for the most energy purchased in National Grid’s GreenUp program. The program promotes the use of clean energy when electric customers pay a little more each month. The mayor has also committed to the purchase of hybrid cars for the city and has created committees to examine transportation and renewable energy.
In the meantime, Healthlink is promoting public transportation and carpooling and the enforcement of anti-idling policies.
They also would like to deter dry cleaners from using harmful chemicals, and educate gas stations about emission reduction. They hope residents will reduce the use of drycleaners or seek green cleaners and reduce travel miles and gas usage.
And though the focus of this study was on outdoor pollution, it seems a whole new study could be conducted just on indoor pollutants from household chemicals, which have proven even more dangerous, says Keegan. Some of the most dangerous toxins found in the study came from an automotive product you could buy right off the shelf, she says.
The group suggests using green alternative products and the use of alternatives to pesticides and other lawn care products, both at home and at local schools.
“Now, I’m starting to feel worse about indoor air pollution,” says Keegan, the mother of a 1-year-old. “What with plastic toys and what they are emitting, baby bottles and toxic chemicals in plastic, you can’t get away from it.”
As for Salem Harbor Station, Keegan says, “The power plant was always saying, ‘We’re not the only game in town.’”
Dinah Cardin is a freelance writer.
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