Saying goodbye to the coal era at the disused Salem Harbor Power Plant

In the historic seaside town of Salem, Massachusetts, an era has come to an end – and it has nothing to do with witches. The coal-fired Salem Harbor Power Plant, a source of long-standing controversy as well as an important part of local history, was closed down on 1 June this year.

The plant is currently in the process of being demolished and replaced with a natural gas-fueled facility by its new owner, a company called Footprint Power.

The closing of the plant is only the most recent development in the state’s efforts to shut down old polluting coal and oil-fired plants. Some have welcomed the switch to natural gas with open arms, while others have pointed out that it, like coal, is a fossil fuel and comes with its own set of problems and challenges.

Independent of these debates, public efforts have been made to commemorate the tradition of coal-burning and the community of workers whose labor has provided the area with electricity for the past 60 years, often at the expense of their own health – and even lives.

One such project is the Across the Bridge exhibition by students of the Montserrat College of Art. For two weeks in June-July, the Salem Harbor Power Plant’s majestic turbine hall was transformed into a gallery of photography, video, drawing, painting, poetry, sculpture and installations honoring and documenting “the lives and work of the power plant employees, most of whom will lose their jobs and move on to other opportunities when the coal plant closes”.

I make no secret out of the fact that Salem is one of my favorite places in the world. If you know me at all, you know this thing about me. I was brought there by a lucky accident in October 2012 (story for another time) and I don’t think I ever completely left. This time, upon my return to the Witch City, I was very excited to have the chance to discover what lies behind its painfully cute New England facade.

It was clear from the get-go that this wasn’t your typical art exhibition. Pre-registration was required and guests had to go through certain security measures before they were allowed in the facility. From there on the rules and directions weren’t so clear anymore and soon I found myself in some strange places…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Pause, rewind.

During its 60 years of operation, the Salem Harbor Power Plant generated electricity for people in the North Shore and the Greater Boston area. Convenience came at a hefty price: In 2000 the researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that the air pollution originating in the plant was responsible for dozens of premature deaths, hundreds of health complications and thousands of asthma attacks yearly.

In the 1990s, the plant made the Filthy Five – a list of power plants in Massachusetts constructed before 1977 and thus exempt from modern pollution laws –  all of which have by now been shut down or are in the process of being shut down.

I have personally seen many an abandoned power plant and factory that now lies in ruins, but this was my first time walking around a place so recently decommissioned that you were hard pressed to believe that the workers would not be returning the next day. Everything looked positively neat.

Well, up in the turbine hall it did, anyway. What I soon discovered thanks to some very unclear directions I received is that the plant had a bit of a dark underbelly on it. I found myself wandering further away from the exhibition – which I had greatly enjoyed and would gladly have bought prints from had there been any available – and into the basement floor. Down in the damp, smelly halls and corridors lit only by a low yellow light, the slick turbine hall felt like a distant dream.

It was unnerving. It was awesome. I turned around when I realized that this most likely was not part of the tour, but not without snapping a few pictures first. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I hadn’t, knowing that these were some of the last moments anybody was going to be down there and walk among the rusty machinery and discarded tools.

As I’m typing this over a month later, the complete demolition of the plant is underway. The new gas-fired facility was originally scheduled to commence commercial operations by June 2016, but according to newer estimates construction is likely to take longer.

Whether natural gas is ultimately the right alternative to coal or not is up for debate, but what we know for certain is that the Filthy Five are no longer literally killing people. That is a milestone in itself.

 

Salem Harbor Power Plant 01

The plant as seen from the Winter Island Road

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In we go!

Salem Harbor Power Plant 04

Up we climb! And down we come as soon as we realize this isn’t the way in.

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The courtyard held no surprises

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The turbine hall shone as new

Salem Harbor Power Plant 08

Just in case you forgot which country you’re in

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From the exhibition

Salem Harbor Power Plant 10

This handy infographic explains the inner workings of the plant. Study it quick, there’ll be a pop quiz later!

Salem Harbor Power Plant 11

Here’s my number, so call me maybe

Salem Harbor Power Plant 11a

As do our motivational posters from the 80s

Salem Harbor Power Plant 12

We measure many things here

Salem Harbor Power Plant 13

Our control room model was a collaboration between the set designers for Jurassic Park and Hackers

Salem Harbor Power Plant 14

This is where we geek

Salem Harbor Power Plant 15

Don’t push the red button

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A completely safe-looking maintenance corridor

Salem Harbor Power Plant 17

Watch out, cool stuff ahead

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Salem Harbor Power Plant 35

The inner courtyard was quite uninteresting and also off-limits, so that’s where I ended my tour. As I was walking back home I caught the sight of this thing in the neighborhood. Sadly, I don’t think the person who put it there is very happy with how things turned out.

Salem Harbor Power Plant 36

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6 comments

  1. Nice work, Noora! You captured so much – and in an even handed way – during your short visit. At this writing, the oil storage tanks on the property are starting to come down, but we’re still waiting for the EPA decision on the final appeal.

    1. Thank you, Stan! My visit felt much longer than it actually was and the plant was definitely one highlight (you can probably guess what the other ones are). I’ll be interested to see what happens – keep me posted!

  2. Patricia A. Gozemba · · Reply

    You have captured so much of the mood and tension that exists in our love-hate relationship with the plant. Your photos are haunting.

    1. Thank you so much Patricia – and nice to get a comment from you! Our mutual friend has told great things about you. I’m very happy you enjoyed the post.

  3. Hey Noora,
    Nice international attention to the most pressing issue facing the planet— how to power our lives without burning fossil fuels & exacerbating climate change. Seems newest research about the urgency of not emitting carbons, especially methane, and spending trillions on new fossil fuel infrastructure is being ignored here in the North of Boston. Truth is we don’t need a gas plant to insure the lights stay on and power outages from super storms are more likely.

    Sad that corruption, greed and ignorance trump so much these days, such as Footprint refusing adaptive reuse of that gorgeous turbine building you photographed. Lack of vision and integrity will hurt Salem’s future, so I’m glad you got to see it when you did.

    1. Hi Linda,

      Great comment and insights – only reading it now after coming home from travels! I tend to agree with you about gas; it feels too much like a shoddy compromise where genuine progress could be made. I will be interested in what’s happened with the plant and how it’s perceived by the local community the next time I visit Salem, which I hope will be soon. Fingers crossed that somebody, somewhere is learning something from all of this.

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