We've got a classic battle going on here in Oxford - long and contentious public hearings, lots of letters to the editor in the local paper and informal gatherings of citizens. The same fight, with different players, is taking place in other Connecticut towns, too, but the media's focus on sex, violence and profits means that these controversies, which have significant implications for the future, aren't covered except in isolated local stories.
Arena Capital from Westport wants to build an enormous industrial generating facility in our town in order to turn natural gas into electricity, with the help of two large turbines and a secondary steam system.
So far, the town's administration has bent over backwards to accommodate this 500 megawatt project. Land was re-zoned from residential to industrial. The allowed uses of industrial park land were changed to include gas-fired power plants. Now the applicant is asking for significant special exceptions. Arena wants to build structures which are two and three times the current height limit, to excavate enormous amounts of earth in order to turn Oxford's highest point into a flattened base for large equipment, to fill wetlands and to operate its power plant.
The citizen opposition to the plant is varied, vocal and very creative. Mothers, ecologists, engineers, authors, teachers, nurses and lots of just plain folks have expressed a variety of concerns which include large-scale use of potable water, very tall, fat smokestacks emitting noxious pollutants, the hum of large turbines running 24 hours a day, electromagnetic radiation and the enormous quantities of waste heat which will be dumped into the environment. These dedicated citizens also worry about global warming, about large trucks carrying toxic chemicals and backup fuel oil over narrow country roads, the potential for disaster with an airport so close, and about the power plant's effects on property values. It's easy to sympathize with residents who're just built their dream homes in a rural area and are suddenly confronted with this industrial dinosaur in their backyards.
It doesn't help the applicant's appeal that its giant development partner, General Electric, is listed as the nation's top superfund polluter. This mega-corporation will supply the equipment, as well as build, operate and maintain the power plant. With the fish in the Housatonic River on the other side of town declared inedible because of PCBs that GE leaked upstream years ago, many residents find it hard to believe that this corporation will be a good neighbor.
To their credit, the developers at Arena Capital have responded to some of the citizens' concerns, changing to a cooling system that uses less water, and removing fencing from around a created wetland, for examples. This plant is said to be cleaner and somewhat more efficient. Proponents for the plant argue that older, more polluting power plants will be retired, once these newer ones are brought on line, but that depends on the future of the deregulated electricity market. Unfortunately, this scenario leaves behind vacant, contaminated brownfields in urban areas while it despoils a beautiful drumlin in Oxford.
There are far fewer vocal supporters of the project in town. Several men who work in power plants and the doctor who plans to build a large residential/golf community here (who also received zoning variances for his project) spoke in favor.
However, the nature of the permitting process and the economic interests of the applicant keep the really important questions from being asked. What is the energy going to be used for - running more school soda machines, electric clothes dryers on sunny days and cooling buildings where the windows don't open, or powering a heart-lung machine? Why don't we use solar energy and conservation first before we consider building this wasteful plant?
Those questions aren't being asked because the answers would turn us away from centralized, wasteful, fossil-fuel power systems controlled by a few large corporations and lead us towards diverse, locally-controlled, non-polluting, solar-energy use.
How long can we keep providing tax benefits to large corporations, despoiling the Earth and adding heat, carbon dioxide and other pollutants to the biosphere in order to obtain services that the sun can provide for free?
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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