Proposed Peabody 'peaker' plant needs full environmental and health impact reviews, North Shore residents say

Dozens of North Shore residents and environmental activists from around the state turned out at a public meeting Wednesday night to protest a proposed fossil fuel power plant in Peabody. They held signs that said “stop burning stuff in Peabody” and “Green energy now” and wore blue shirts to represent the clean air and blue skies they say they’re fighting for.

“I live approximately one mile from the peaker plant,” Salem resident Kate Enderlin testified. “As a child I had a very serious asthma problem. In the 1950s there were no inhalers, so I know how scary it is when you can’t breathe.”

Enderlin, like many others who gave public comment at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection hearing, implored state officials to order comprehensive health and environmental reviews before signing off on the project’s plan to monitor carbon dioxide emissions.

“People are living in a polluted area and you want to add more pollution?” said Salem resident Jim Mulloy. “We want these assessments done they need to be done.”

The so-called “Peabody Peaker” plant — officially known as Project 2015-A — is a proposed 55 megawatt natural gas and diesel fuel-burning facility that would only turn on in times of peak electricity demand. It’s permitted to run up to 1,250 hours per year, but will probably operate fewer hours than that.

The $85 million power plant is slated to come online sometime in 2023, and once built, will share a small plot of land with two older peaking gas and oil-fired power plants near the Waters River. Its location, many pointed out during Wednesday’s meeting, would sit in and around eight state designated Environmental Justice neighborhoods.

“We, the communities of Waters River, share the health impacts of living with cumulative environmental pollution resulting from industrial development around the Waters River for more than a century,” said Susan Smoller, a Peabody resident and co-founder of the group Breathe Clean North Shore.

“How much does one neighborhood have to endure?” added state Rep. Sally Kerans.

The site of a proposed 'peaker' power plant in Peabody, which would be built next to two older gas-fired facilities. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The site of a proposed ‘peaker’ power plant in Peabody, which would be built next to two older gas-fired facilities. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Because of the relatively small size of the plant, it did not require a full environmental review from the state when Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company (MMWEC) first proposed it in 2015. Since then, however, state law has changed.

As of March 2021, any facility with air pollution like this one that is located within one mile of an environmental justice community requires a full review. The 2021 climate law also requires state officials to consider “cumulative impacts,” or how pollution from a new facility would add to existing pollution levels. By contrast, when the Peabody facility received its air quality permit, the Department of Environmental protection only needed to determine whether emission from the facility exceeded state thresholds.

“It is a fact that had Project 2015-A, or as we call it, the Peabody peaker, been proposed this year or even last year, it would have gone through a drastically different regulatory process — one that would have been more thorough, more transparent, and more cognizant of cumulative impacts,” said Mireille Bejjani, co-executive director of the advocacy group Slingshot.

“It still baffles me that the state is allowing MMWEC to proceed with a project that our laws acknowledge is harmful to our most vulnerable communities.”

A recent study commissioned by the Massachusetts Climate Action Network found that compared to state averages, residents living within a 1.25 mile radius of the proposed facility have higher rates of cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coronary heart disease and stroke. The study wasn’t able to model how the operation of the new peaker plant would impact these issues, but according to health experts — some of whom testified at the hearing — it would certainly exacerbate them.

“There are many well-documented health concerns associated with fossil fuel-burning power plants,” said Sharon Cameron, the director of Peabody’s Health and Human Services department. She listed several emissions-related health impacts like cancer, asthma and heart disease, and noted that the carbon pollution from these facilities also contributes to climate change, which has its own set of health impacts.

“We understand the benefits of the proposed plant in terms of ensuring adequate energy capacity in the region with stable and known costs,” Cameron continued. “However, we believe that it is impossible to understand the potential burdens of this project, particularly on vulnerable and disproportionately impacted residents, without a full environmental impact report and comprehensive health assessment.”

Susan and Ron Smoller hold signs at a Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection hearing about the proposed Peabody "peaker" plant. (Courtesy of Mireille Bejjani)
Susan and Ron Smoller hold signs at a Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection hearing about the proposed Peabody “peaker” plant. (Courtesy of Mireille Bejjani)

Throughout the hearing — which was technically supposed to be limited to a discussion of MMWEC’s carbon dioxide monitoring plan — speakers asked state officials for several things:

  • To conduct the full environmental review required by current law
  • To order a comprehensive health impact study, like the one the state did for the Weymouth Compressor in 2017
  • To require all three plants on the site have publicly available monitoring plans for nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter, in addition to carbon dioxide
  • And to consider revoking the project’s air quality permit, as it did for a controversial proposed biomass facility in Springfield

It’s not entirely clear whether the situation in Springfield is analogous to the one in Peabody. In the case of the biomass facility, the state cited major public health and environmental justice concerns that had arisen since it issued the permit, and said it had the right to rescind the permit because of a lag in construction activities.

While the air quality permit for the peaker facility was issued a little more than two years ago, construction does appear to have started on the site. MMWEC did not respond to multiple requests for comment or information about the status of the project.

The Department of Environmental Protection tentatively approved the Peabody facility’s Carbon Dioxide Budget Trading Program Emission Control Plan, but won’t make a final decision until after the public comment period ends on Dec. 14.

According to a spokesperson from the department, the emission control plan is a required permit, but MMWEC does not technically need it finalized before it can begin operations.


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