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Look Ahead, Pittsfield: What you should know about the local 'peaker' plant permit on the line this week

PITTSFIELD — The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection will hold a hearing Tuesday over a local power plant’s request for the renewal of its operating permit. The hearing is pretty typical stuff for the plant, Pittsfield Generating Company, which has its permit reviewed every five years. But this year, local environmental activists hope this hearing is anything but rote for the plant.

For months, a coalition of environmental activists led by the Berkshire Environmental Action Team has pushed for the closure of the plant or for a redesign that would swap the plant’s use of fossil fuels for clean energy alternatives. That push has gained support from both the Pittsfield Board of Health and local state representatives.

Here’s what you should know about the Pittsfield Generating plant, “peaker” plants like it and what environmentalists are saying about the situation ahead of the Zoom hearing at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. For details about how to join the Zoom, visit tinyurl.com/MADEPhearing.

What is a peaker plant?Peaker plants are power plants that run primarily when demand for electricity reaches its “peak.” These plants serve as a kind of safety net to make sure that when everyone sets their air conditioning on high blast in the dog days of summer or switches on their holiday lights, the electrical grid is still able to meet the surge in need.

Since the plants are only needed at these peak points, the plants lie dormant most of the time. According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, peaker plants like the Pittsfield Generating plant operate less than 10 percent of the year. There are a handful of peaker plants throughout the Berkshires: the Pittsfield Generating plant on Merrill Road and another plant on Doreen Street in Pittsfield and one on Woodland Road in Lee.

So what’s with all the interest with this plant?As far as peaker plants go, the Pittsfield Generating plant is pretty typical. The plant is 31 years old and runs on fracked natural gas and oil — a design that’s normal for peaker plants across the state. But that design is the plant’s biggest sticking point with environmentalists.

Last year, the plant produced 3.2 tons of nitrogen oxides and 19,152 tons of carbon dioxide — down 55 percent from the 7.3 tons of nitrogen oxides and 42,321 tons of carbon dioxide the plant produced in 2019 according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Earlier this year, The Eagle’s Danny Jin covered the bevy of potential public health impacts that can come from living in the shadow of these peaker plants. The pollution put out by peaker plants can increase the risk of developing asthma, impair lung function and lower heart health.

What do the opponents want?BEAT has put out a series of talking points to prepare their members for the public comment section of the hearing on Tuesday. In the document, BEAT argues that the state’s Department of Environmental Protection should implement a regulation system to enforce its emissions limits, and that such a system should have been created back in 2016 when emission limits were set.

The main request from the group is to deny the permit for the plant. The group believes that the most environmentally conscious solution is to replace the plant with a battery system powered by clean energy, like solar power. If the DEP decides to grant the permit, BEAT is asking that “it should only be provisional for 1 year on the agreement that [Pittsfield Generating] come up with a transition plan” to a greener energy system within two years.

New health director on the way

Andy Cambi

Andy Cambi, who has served as Pittsfield's Interim Director of Public Health since Sept. 11, will interview with the Board of Health on Wednesday for the opportunity to lead the city department.

Patricia M. Tremblay (copy)

Public Health Nursing Coordinator Pat Tremblay is one of two finalists who will be interviewed Wednesday for the role of Pittsfield's Health Department Director. 

Pittsfield won’t have to look far to find its next Health Department director. The Board of Health announced Friday that Interim Deputy Director Andy Cambi and Public Health Nursing Coordinator Pat Tremblay, RN, have been selected as finalists for the role from a group of four applicants.

Cambi has worked with the city since 2014, starting first as a nuisance control officer with the Health Department before a promotion to sanitarian in 2016 and senior sanitarian in 2017.

The Board of Health voted unanimously to have Cambi serve as interim health department director in September, following the resignation of former director Gina Armstrong. (Mayor Linda Tyer announced last week that Armstrong, along with Community Development Director Deanna Ruffer will be overseeing the city’s nearly $41 million in American Rescue Plan money as co-special project managers.)

Tremblay has worked as the Public Health Nursing Coordinator with the city health department since March 2020, helping with the city’s contact tracing efforts during the pandemic. Prior to her work with the city, she was the director of Berkshire Visiting Nurse Association and Hospice — a group of nurses, therapists and home health aides affiliated with the Berkshire Health System.

Cambi and Tremblay will be interviewed during a virtual meeting of the board on Wednesday in two 30-minute interviews. The meeting will be open to the public and begin at 6 p.m. For details on how to join the meeting, check the city calendar.

Heads-upHancock Holiday Nights at the Hancock Shaker Village continues this week on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Berkshire landmark comes alive in “a multi-sensory experience” with light installations, holiday decorations, farm animals and festive cocktails.

Reservations are required for timed entry to the village and tickets are being sold for $20 for adults and $10 for children 6-18. Children 5 and under can attend free of charge. For more information visit Hancockshakervillage.org

Meg Britton-Mehlisch can be reached at mbritton@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6149.

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