By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
SOMERSET, Mass. — Residents in the working-class Brayton Point neighborhood were up as early as 5 a.m. on Saturday, April 27, strolling the streets in their bathrobes and slippers and holding mugs of coffee as they waited for an implosion.
They chatted as security vehicles circled the neighborhood’s narrow streets and media members looked for unobstructed views of the demolition of the nearby 500-foot-high cooling towers.
“When you live next to a power plant what do you expect,” said Steve Millar, 44, who resides next to his parents home on Perkins Street, some 1,000 feet from what was once the largest and most polluting power generator in the New England.
Millar, like many in the neighborhood, either worked at the coal-fired power plant or has friends and/or family who did. Many recalled the persistent rain of coal dust that coated patios and cars. And the money the energy company paid to power-wash their homes.
Millar recalled the summers of his youth running from his backyard pool across a coal-dusted deck and tracking dark, coal footprints into the house.
Other residents mentioned neighbors who complained of health problems to local officials and power-plant liaisons that resulted in undisclosed payments to relocate to another part of town.
Despite the closure of the town’s largest employer and the jump in property taxes caused by the loss of the facility’s tax revenue, most in the neighborhood were glad to see the power plant shutter in 2017 and the buildings slowly demolished.
“I won’t miss it a bit,” said Paige Belmore, who lives and grew up on Carey Street.
Belmore, who was enjoying a mimosas with neighbors on her parent’s elevated deck, recalled the coal flakes in her yard.
John Silvia was the neighborhood organizer who, for many of his 35 years living on Perkins Street, pestered town officials and power-plant managers with complaints of pollution and noise.
“I was a thorn in their side,” he said.
The coal dust, he noted, came from coal shipments being unloaded from tankers docked across the marsh from their neighborhood. Silvia recalled calling the plant’s managers during summer nights to ask them to relocate the noisy bulldozers driving up and down the coal piles.
Some residents worked on building the cooling towers, which were completed in 2012, and noted that the 6-foot-thick cement walls were still setting. They liked that the power plant, which opened in 1963, provided jobs and allowed the use of athletic fields on the power plant’s 300-acre peninsula. But once the utility industry was deregulated and privatized in the 1980s, ownership seemed to change every few years, jobs were less reliable, and layoffs were common.
Many weren’t aware the $570 million cooling towers were being built until after the project was approved, but they recognized that it was the result of a long legal and environmental battle with the plant’s owners to cool the water discharged into Mount Hope Bay. At its peak, the Brayton Point Power Station pumped 1 billion gallons of heated water into the estuary daily, decimating fish such as winter founder and marine larvae.
John Torgan, state director of The Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island chapter, was the Narragansett Bay baykeeper with Save The Bay in 1994 when the environmental group began pressuring the facility’s owner, Dominion Energy, to curtail the heated discharge.
A protracted legal battle ended with a settlement that lead Dominion to build the cooling towers. The towers worked, as the water used for cooling was returned to Mount Hope Bay at nearly the natural temperature.
Dominion , however, sold Brayton Point to investment company Energy Capital Partners in 2013. Soon after, the new owners decided to cease operations. Large protests and ongoing pressure from climate activists and environmental groups weren’t the reason for the closure, according go the energy investment company. They blamed expensive air pollution-control equipment and the plummeting price of electricity from natural-gas power plants. In essence, Brayton Point was a causality of the fracking boom.
After much speculation about whether the site would reopen as natural-gas power plant — it sits on a gas pipeline — or another energy facility, Commercial Development Co. acquired Brayton Point in January 2018. The group plans to use the port as a staging area and shore connection for the undersea power cables from the massive offshore wind farms planned for federal waters just south of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Torgan, who watched the demolition of the cooling towers from a Save The Bay vessel in Mount Hope Bay, said he was “happy to see them to go up when they did and even happier to see them go down. It was the end of era and beginning of a new one.”
For the residents of Brayton Point the brief yet powerful demolition was another event in the long drama of living in the shadow of an industrial behemoth. After the towers were imploded, residents didn’t linger. Most headed back indoors or donned dust masks in preparation for the cloud of cement dust that would engulf the neighborhood.
The chimneys were imploded in late March.
“It’s nice seeing all that gone,” Millar said.