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Massachusetts Embracing Gas to Reduce Emissions

Massachusetts Embracing Gas to Reduce Emissions

In an attempt to go "above and beyond" federal regulations, six of Massachusetts' oldest --- and dirtiest --- power plants will be retrofitted or rebuilt and will switch to cleaner burning natural gas after reaching a voluntary agreement last week with state officials. The six plants, owned by five companies, vowed to cut their emissions in half by 2003, a move that has followed growing political and grassroots pressure throughout Massachusetts.

The final blow may have come when a Harvard University report revealed two weeks ago that two of state's facilities --- Salem Harbor Station and Brayton Point --- may be triggering thousands of asthma attacks and hundreds of deaths every year.

Dubbed the "Filthy Five" utilities by environmental groups and even state regulators, the utilities joined together and voluntarily agreed to Gov. Paul Cellucci's demands made within the past two months. Cellucci threatened the utilities with harsh penalties and stricter regulations if they did not upgrade their facilities.

Under the agreement, the six facilities will switch from coal to natural gas and use new technologies to improve pollution control. The changes are expected to reduce nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions by 50%, and also reduce carbon dioxide and soot emissions.

The facilities and their owners are Sithe Energy's Mystic Station in Charlestown, built in the 1950s; NRG Energy Inc.'s Montaup Station in Somerset; Pacific Gas & Electric's two facilities, Brayton Point in Somerset and Salem Harbor in Salem; Northeast Utilities' Mount Tom in Holyoke; and Southern Energy New England's Canal Electric in Sandwich.

Sithe Energy is the only company that will build a new facility --- a $1 billion gas-fired plant to replace the Mystic Station facility, and it is expected to open in the summer of 2002. Mystic Station still will be used, but only as a backup and also will be retrofitted to burn gas. All of the other plants will be retrofitted to burn gas. Work is expected to begin later this year.

The Mystic Station Redevelopment Project, as it is called, will have a gas-fired combined-cycle electric power generation facility to mostly replace the existing Mystic Station, a 1,000 MW electric generating facility. Sithe plans to use state-of-the-art "G" combustion turbine technology, and is considering either Siemens Westinghouse or Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as the potential supplier. The supplier choice will result in the project having a total nominal electric power output rating of 1,500 MW, or 2,550 MW, depending upon final equipment selection.

According to state officials, expanding capacity at the Mystic Station site "provides a unique opportunity to meet the region's energy needs using an existing site and infrastructure, and to provide improvements to operation of the existing Mystic Station units." The project will be supplied with gas from a new 20-inch diameter pipeline to nearby Distrigas's liquefied natural gas terminal. The pipeline also will give the project access to several other supply options.

Together, the six facilities are responsible for 90% of the power plant pollution in Massachusetts, according to the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, a consumer interest organization. But the natural gas will change that, said officials. Emissions from the plants could drop by as much as 89,000 tons a year, which is equivalent to taking 750,000 vehicles off the road, according to environmental groups. In the Harvard University report, researchers estimate that Salem Harbor Station and Brayton Pont may be linked to 43,000 asthma attacks and an estimated 159 premature deaths every year.

"The people of Massachusetts can breathe a little easier," Cellucci said. "We will clean up the Filthy Five."

Greg Butler, vice president of Northeast Utilities, said there would have been "hell to pay" if the five companies had not complied with the governor's demands. "The governor really did a Herculean task," Butler said. As part of Massachusetts' utility deregulation, 18 other power plants are scheduled to be built, but because there will be more plants, Cellucci predicted consumer bills will not increase drastically to cover the cleanup.

Carolyn Davis, Houston

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