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October 29, 2014

End of the Coal Era in Massachusetts


Back in June, the Sierra Club and its allies in the Coal Free Massachusetts coalition won a long-sought victory when the owners of the 54-year-old Mt. Tom coal plant in Holyoke -- one of the biggest polluters in the state -- announced that the plant would cease coal operations this October.


Unfortunately, the June announcement by GDF Suez, which owns Mt. Tom, was not a binding commitment. "Our worry was that they were just 'mothballing' the facility while they rode out the current economically unfavorable conditions, in hopes of resuming operations at some point down the road," says James McCaffrey, senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. That's McCaffrey at right, below, with Beyond Coal volunteer Rick Purcell.


Those worries were fueled by GDF Suez's attempt last spring to terminate a "compliance demonstration process" designedto ensure that the impact of the plant's emissions of harmful sulfur dioxide did not exceed federal air-quality standards.

But for the past two years, the Sierra Club had consistently been pushing the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to finalize enforceable sulfur dioxide limits, threatening legal action over the plant's expired air permit, which galvanized DEP's initiation of the compliance demonstration process.

"After GDF Suez announced this June that it was terminating the process, we turned up the heat," McCaffrey says. "Over the summer, the Club and its allies submitted over 1,000 petitions to Governor Deval Patrick and the DEP commissioner, and circulated a letter taking the agency to task for failing to protect public health."


And in early October DEP responded, mandating that the plant comply with the sulfur dioxide emissions standards before it would ever be allowed to resume operation.

"The additional public pressure did the trick," says McCaffrey. "We understand that budget-stressed agencies need to prioritize their work, but the health of Holyoke and Pioneer Valley residents is at stake here, now and in the future, and the governor and DEP really stepped up and responded. This action by the DEP reduces the likelihood that the mothballed facility will ever seek to operate again. We commend the Patrick administration for following through on the process even as the situation changed dramatically."

McCaffrey says he doesn't expect there to be a need for Mt. Tom to resume operations, "but ensuring the proper safeguards and a positive outcome here was key. This is a major victory for families in this region who have suffered from the impacts of pollution from the Mt. Tom plant for far too long." The asthma rate in Holyoke is three times the state average.

Joshua-Berman"The DEP's action establishes a great precedent," says Sierra Club attorney Joshua Berman, at left, who spearheaded the Club's legal efforts on Mt. Tom. "The agency is saying the plant cannot operate in a manner that would lead to exceedances of the sulfur dioxide ambient air-quality standard. This helps to guarantee that air quality in western Massachusetts will be protected, and it is an extremely important precedent for our coal plant work everywhere."

Mt. Tom's retirement has been a top priority for Coal Free Massachusetts, which represents more than 100 public health, environmental justice, faith, student, and business groups. For four years, the Sierra Club and its allies have been working directly in the community with Action for a Healthy Holyoke (AHH!) and Neighbor to Neighbor, as well as with local schools, boards of health, nurses' associations, and regional entities throughout the area to retire Mt. Tom.


Among the chief concerns of the Sierra Club and Coal Free Massachusetts -- of which the Massachusetts Sierra Club is a founder member -- was making sure GDF Suez honored the duration of the union contracts of workers at the Mt. Tom plant until October. The Club also successfully promoted legislation to commit $100,000 in state funds to the city of Holyoke for reuse and planning for the Mt. Tom site.

Below, a hearing at the Massachusetts state house on the Clean Energy Commonwealth bill to phase out coal in Massachusetts, help retrain workers, and help transition communities that host a coal plant. Sierra Club and Coal Free Massachusetts activists spoke at the hearing.


"There are many exciting opportunities on the horizon, and GDF Suez is now exploring the option of installing a 15-megawatt solar facility after demolition of the coal plant," McCaffrey says. "The Sierra Club is working with the Patrick administration, the legislature, and GDF Suez to assure that all regulatory and legislative components are in place to help clean up the site and make Mt. Tom Solar a reality."

Learn more about the Sierra Club's work to move America beyond coal.

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