Thursday, August 30, 2007

Gasification plant opposition grows

Maine Today
Dennis Hoey
August 30, 2007

WISCASSET — Lobstermen in Westport worry that coal barges might damage their traps. Area environmentalists fear the ecological damage that might result from a proposed coal-to- gas plant. Others wonder about the effect on boaters.

They all also wonder how much influence they'll have in deciding whether the project moves forward, because few live in the town where the plant would be built.

"The effects from this power plant are going to be felt outside of Wiscasset," said former Portland radio personality Willy Ritch, who lives in Woolwich and has formed the Back River Alliance to voice concerns about the project.

"They claim the plant won't make noise and won't make pollution. We question that."

Opposition to a proposed energy plant seems to be growing, both in town and out. But opponents say they are at a disadvantage because many live outside Wiscasset and won't have a voice in the final decision.

The $1.5 billion proposal from Twin River Energy Center, which became public in July, has reached a possible turning point.

All the company needs before seeking state and federal permits is permission from Wiscasset voters — likely in November — to build a 230-foot-tall gasification plant. The plant would convert coal and wood biomass into a gas that would be burned to power a 700-megawatt generator. The process also would produce diesel fuel.

The plant would be the most expensive commercial construction project in state history.

Before it can move ahead, voters must approve a change to the town's zoning ordinance to allow the plant to exceed building- height restrictions. The present ordinance allows for 60-foot buildings, Town Planner Jeffrey Hinderliter said.

Opponents, though, want to educate the public about other aspects of the project, which they claim will place undue strain on local natural resources and will harm local fishermen.

"As soon as the town passes the zoning amendment, they lose control of their destiny," said Steve Hinchman, staff attorney for the Brunswick-based Conservation Law Foundation.

Hinchman contends that using coal to make diesel will more than double greenhouse gases. Water consumption (for cooling), water disposal, odor and noise are additional concerns.

When the plan was announced on July 18, Scott Houldin, project manager for Twin River Energy Center, focused on the environmental benefits of the process, which he said would produce low-cost electricity and low-emission diesel fuel.

"We are not burning coal, and we need to make that absolutely clear," Houldin said at the time.

The gasification plant would occupy a 50-acre parcel within what is now called the i.Park, an industrial park that was part of the former Maine Yankee nuclear power plant property.

The land is owned by National RE/sources, a Greenwich, Conn.- based development company that is also developing a maritime village on the site of the former Mason Station power plant in Wiscasset.

Houldin said the plant and a proposed research-and- development center would generate 200 year-round jobs and provide about 78 percent of Wiscasset's total property tax base.

The windfall would help replace the property-tax revenues lost when Maine Yankee was decommissioned, according to town selectmen, who have given the project an initial nod.

The board will host a public hearing on Sept. 6 on the proposed zoning ordinance change, and a townwide secret ballot has been tentatively set for Election Day, Nov. 6.

"We are at a critical juncture," said Houldin.

Opponents such as Ritch agree that this is a critical time, but for different reasons.

Ritch, a sailor, said the plant will receive about 5,000 tons of coal daily, and pointed out that the Back River channel is narrow, making it a tight fit for barges, pleasure boats and lobster boats.

Ritch and others also question where the plant will get the 8.5 million gallons of water it will need each day for cooling.

Dave Bertan, a retired chemical engineer from Westport Island, worries about carbon emissions from the plant.

"The only control Wiscasset will have over this plant is the height of the building and stacks," he said.

Houldin said they cannot be any shorter than 165 feet.

Lobstermen who fish in the Back and Sheepscot rivers, meanwhile, say they are worried about the impact on their industry.

"There is nothing about this plant that I like," said Terry Ashton, who fishes for lobster out of Wiscasset on his father's boat, the Top-Notch.

Father and son set traps from Wiscasset Harbor all the way to Five Islands in Georgetown. Ashton said coal barges will damage lobster traps and wreak havoc with lobstermen.

"A coal barge would clean out everything and eat into our season," he said.

At the North End Co-op on Westport Island, manager Adam Webber, a Westport Island resident, said, "I don't know that anyone here is in favor of it. People are worried about the coal barges. No industry is good for the river."

Houldin said coal will arrive by barge and rail, and admits that more studies need to be done before a plan is put in place.

"I don't really have an answer for the fishermen until we do a (feasibilty) study, and that is going to take time and money," Houldin said.

John Reinhardt, a member of the town's Comprehensive Plan Committee, said guidelines call for light industry on the site, "not heavy industry that will be shooting a plume into the air."

Rienhardt, who owns a bed and breakfast in Wiscasset and is president of Stewards of the Sheepscot, worries that finances will drive the decision.

"There are people in this town who are going to vote for this because they view it as tax relief," he said.

Houldin said he is undaunted by opposition. The proposal is offering the town new jobs and tax revenues, and the region a way to reduce energy costs, he said.

"It is time for the town to tell us that they want us to move forward, because right now all this is, is an opportunity," Houldin said.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be reached at 725-8795 or at

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