A Fight For All Seasons: Brockton Enters 12th Round Against Brockton Power

By Greg O’Brien

News Analysis, Codfish Press

(Part of an on-going series on energy and environmental issues from Cape Cod to California)

Rocky Marciano has returned in triumph to Brockton, the City of Champions with the unveiling recently of a 22-foot, larger-than-life statue to be installed in Champions Park at Brockton High School, his alma mater. At 49-0, with 43 knockouts, the Brockton Blockbuster—the only person to hold the heavyweight title untied and undefeated—got right to the punch.  

A community of about 95,000 with an average per capita income of $20,000, is facing extraordinary challengesHis arrival is not a minute to soon. Brockton could use a champion.  

The city, a community of about 95,000 with an average per capita income of $20,000, is facing extraordinary challenges of high unemployment, rising crime, and a large minority population, many of whom do not speak English. 

And Brockton today is engaged in its own heavyweight fight, symbolic of Marciano’s grit and resolve to go the rounds, often at long odds. City officials are rope-a-dope in the 12-round bruiser with fossil fuel power plant called Brockton Power, its heavyweight sponsors Advanced Power and the Seimins Corp., and consultants—former Brockton Mayor Jack Yunits and Epsilon Associates, manned with former state Department of Environmental Protection engineers, who knew the inside baseball of power plant permitting.

The main event is winner-take-all in a five-year bout over construction of a 350-meggawatt gas-fired, water-cooled, multi-turbine plant. The site is located on industrial land near the lip of residential and business areas on the city’s south side where more than 30,000 Brockton residents would be impacted, not including abutting West Bridgewater and East Bridgewater. It’s within a half mile of six schools, four day care centers, two ten-story senior housing projects for the elderly and disabled, 200 units of low-income housing, a facility for brain injured children, a drug treatment center and four churches. Residents, institutions, businesses and city officials are concerned, among other fears, about toxic emissions and the fact that Brockton already has one of the highest asthma rates in Massachusetts, about twice the state average for children.  Brockton is the ninth most environmentally overburdened community in the Commonwealth, based on assessed environmental hazard points.

Not surprising for a “Gateway” community, one of 24 former Massachusetts mill cities that during the Industrial Revolution churned out enough toxins to impair the health of residents for generations to come. The city is an industrial Statue of Liberty: give us your tired, your poor, your hungry, and just about every foul project that no one else on the planet wants. Once the shoe capital of the world, the city is still prey to voracious developers attempting to walk over Brockton, which has already an exceedingly high concentration of Brownfield sites, hazardous waste dumps, landfill type facilities and environmentally hazardous facilities.

The city has 374
hazardous waste sites.
The city has 374 hazardous waste sites, compared to an average 84 waste sites in cities and towns throughout the Commonwealth, notes Kate Archard of Brockton, director of the writing program and a communications consultant at UMass/Boston. Citing a report from Daniel R. Farber, Director of the Northeastern University’s Environmental Justice Research Collaborative, she says that Brockton also has six landfill operations, garbage dumps, trash transfer sites and recycling sites. Brockton’s Thatcher Street Landfill, she notes, is known as the “mountain of Brockton” because its massive size, and that a former auto body shop on East Ashland Street was so contaminated with petroleum, asbestos and other harmful toxins that eight years ago the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seized the site. Then there is the wastewater treatment plant (AWRF) on Oak Hill Way “that not only discharges sewer effluent into the Salisbury River, but also disposes of the solid waster in the form of ‘sludge cakes’ by burning it in an incinerator and releasing it into the air,” she says.

So where’s the justice in all this?

Sorely missing, and that’s why Brockton Power opponents are leaning on the state’s Environmental Justice Policy and the federal Environmental Justice Act of 1997 for relief in what is expected to be a precedent-setting case in environmental justice, just as Rocky was a precedent-setting in the ring. Simply put, environmental justice “is fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies,” states the EPA. What it means for Brockton, power plant opponents say, is that residents here have a protected right to live in a clean, environmentally safe city without being burdened disproportionately with toxic pollutants.

The state—through an Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) decision in 2009— has signaled initial agreement with the principles of environmental justice, sanctioning the Brockton Power project, but only with the stipulation of local approvals. It was the first time in the agency’s history that it placed such conditions on a project.

In the face of EFSB stipulations and environmental justice, Brockton Power, under the mantle of Brockton Clean Energy, a joint venture between Advanced Power and Siemens Financial Services, has done what any self-respecting, profit driven corporation might do: muscle the city, and sue its derriere. Brockton officials are holding a collective breath over an menacing $68 million civil rights lawsuit filed against city officials by project proponents, Brockton Power LLC, alleging conspiracy to “reject, deny and starve” the project.

“We reluctantly took this action because of the city’s continued refusal to give the project the fair and full review to which it is entitled under state law and the city’s own ordinances,” stated Brockton Power

The suit, filed by the Boston firm Bingham McCutchen, accuses city officials of conspiring to “systematically deprive” Brockton Power of its “constitutional right to develop their land” and “be free from outrageous and unfair acts of discrimination, arbitrary and capricious action or inaction, and flagrant denial of procedural and substantive due process rights.”

What say Brockton officials and project opponents about this? Put up your dukes!

 “If (the lawsuit’s) primary intent is to threaten and scare the City of Brockton into a direction desired by the applicant, that won’t work,” City Solicitor Philip Nessralla has countered. 

Brockton Power has responded with the best and brightest of high-paid lawyers, winning some early preliminary rounds, filing appeals and when all else failed, suing the city for more than it’s worth—a legal maneuver that seems to summarize this long fierce battle, which redefines corporate community relations when big money is at stake.

“This indeed is a Rocky prizefight. It’s all about who can stay in the ring the longest,” says Ed Beyers, founder of the voluble Stop the Power opposition group (stopthepower.net) and owner of abutting Cindy’s Kitchen, an organic salad dressing company abutting the proposed site. “Brockton Power is the ten-million pound gorilla coming into a depressed city, trying to get us to cave. They never expected such a fight. But this is Brockton, the city of underdogs and champions, and my money now is on the mayor and the city council.”

“They thought we’d be an easy mark,” says Gini Jeppson, co-founder of Citizens for a Better Brockton, who has been fighting the project since 1997 when it was first proposed by other developers, initially approved, then withdrawn. “Brockton Power today is trying to wear us down with lawsuits against the city, deposing everyone in sight and antagonizing us. They want us to fold. That’s not happening. No one is giving up.”

Adds Loretta Murray, one of the group’s early organizers, “We’re not easy pickings. Some might think approval is a done deal, but the deal isn’t done, and we’re not going away.”

Former Mayor Yunits indeed hopes the opposition will fade. Brockton Power was proposed under his watch by a close friend and colleague, the late George Baldwin, a prominent Brockton businessman. The required zoning was then set in place. Now Yunits is a consultant to Brockton Power. Badda Bing. Badda boom.

City Hall today isn’t impressed with its contenders. Both Mayor Linda Balzotti, the city’s first female mayor, and ten of 11 city councilors, are steadfastly opposed to the project on grounds that it’s the wrong location, not needed, poses significant health hazards, would reduce property values, potentially cost the city more than it would gain from revenues, and would infringe on the rights of residents. “This power plant is the wrong project for Brockton,” Balzotti said emphatically in a May 10 open letter to Brockton residents. “The south side of the city already has a wastewater treatment plant and a landfill. The proposed power plant would add an additional and unacceptable environmental burden to our community.”

Adds Brockton Town Councilor Thomas Monahan of Ward 2, “It’s not the right project and not the right site for Brockton. The air quality and health of residents would be compromised.”

Monahan concedes from Brockton Power’s perspective that the site is financially viable on grounds of its close proximity to gas and transmission lines. But opponents view such a prized corporate location as the perfect storm for abutters and residents.

“If these types of projects were good for all communities, why don’t we see them in Brookline, Weston, Newton or Wellesley?” says Beyers’ Boston attorney Paul Glickman. “They came to Brockton because it’s poor and they assumed there was no will to fight. Brockton Power came in with a checkbook and an attitude that you should welcome us, and if you don’t it’s a civil rights violation. I think when the 14th Amendment was passed in 1886, its sponsors didn’t think Brockton Power one day would be one of one of the beneficiaries.”

It’s a stretch, by any measure, connecting 14th amendment (designed to protect poor blacks) with a powerful international conglomerate like Siemens and parcel property owners the Barry brothers, who purchased the land for a reported $700,000, just pennies on the dollar, and now stand to gain millions in a windfall if the project is approved.

Beyond doubt, environmental concerns regarding Brockton Power are the most daunting.

“The health issue is the biggest minus,” says Paul Studenski, the ward city councilor. “The folks here are scared. No doubt about it. They are simply opposed, and I’m going to support them.”

Balzotti references the fear in a recent open letter to residents. “Everyone has a right to environmental justice—to have a clean, healthy quality of life” regardless of a project’s purported benefits, she wrote. 

Project benefits, as proposed by Brockton Power, include: $1 million in annual tax revenues to the city, as well as revenue from agreements to purchase water that would be needed for the plant and expand treatment capacity. In laymen’s terms, it’s a discounted $1 million dollars a year in commercial property taxes in lieu of fully taxed assessments that would net Brockton $4 million annually. The project, proponents say, also would create 250 construction jobs during peak construction and 20 full time jobs for plant operation. These, however, are highly skilled job, and likely beyond the qualifications of most Brockton residents.

Clouding the fray further are ongoing critical concerns about an evacuation plan. The city, according Police Chief Emanuel Gomes, has no acceptable plan for proper evacuation. It’s a public safety concern, and the chief has noted so right from the start.  

Why such a fuss over public safety?

One only has to look south to Middletown, Ct, where a similar type Siemens combined cycle gas-and-oil fired power plant exploded in February 2008, killing six and injuring at least 50. The explosion, believed to be the result of an operating test during construction, was felt as far as five miles away. Parts of the walls of this massive structure were seen flapping in the wind.

This is certainly not a model of best practices for Siemens, the German industrial giant. Nor is it much of a resume enhancer, as the Washington Post reported last year that federal investigators “had charged six former executives of Siemens, AG, including a board member, with conspiring to spend $100 million bribing Argentine officials in an effort to secure a $1 billion contract for the global engineering giant.”

The paper quoted Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, who oversees the Justice Department criminal division, as saying, “The allegations in this indictment reflect a stunning level of deception and corruption.”  The Post reported that “the charges came more than a decade after the alleged conspiracy began and three years after Siemens paid $1.6 billion to settle accusations in the United States and Germany that the company engaged in a systematic effort to win business by paying bribes in various countries.”

End of story.

Not quite. While Brockton Power indeed is big money—from the bottom up— city officials say it’s not worth the purported benefits. Brockton just isn’t for sale when it comes to the siting of a 350-meggawatt gas-fired plant. Adding an exclamation point, the city, to date, has refused to sell Brockton Power the millions of gallons of water needed for the plant—a denial now tied up in court. This a show-stopper for Brockton Power; no water, no plant. That simple.

But by most counts, this bout will last another 18 months. Heading now into this 12th round, one might recall a bruised and haggard Rocky Marciano lunging into the final round against Jersey Joe Walcott on September 23, 1952. Appearing outmatched and on the verge of defeat, Marciano sprung out of his chair, danced with Walcott, trading punches, then backed him into a corner, and without a hint of what was to come, dropped Walcott to the mat with two power punches to the head.

It’s never over in this city of champions.

Brockton and state officials could learn something from Marciano. “Why waltz with a guy for 10 rounds if you can knock him out in one,” the champ once said.

Welcome home, Rocky!

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