Winds of Change

Once home to a dirty coal-fired power plant, Salem Harbor is set to become the launch pad for a clean energy future.

By Pam Reynolds

For years, Salem residents woke up to a blanket of black dust on their front porches. The dust drifted over from piles of coal stored at the Salem Harbor Power Station, one of two Massachusetts coal-fired power plants that belched dangerous pollutants into the state’s air.

When residents in Salem’s Derby Street neighborhood complained about the dust, recalls Rev. Jeffrey Barz-Snell, who lived nearby for more than two decades, the facility would send out a crew to power-wash the black film away – if that is, residents signed a legal waiver of liability.

“And then, of course, there were the smells and the exhaust and the fumes,” says Barz-Snell, formerly minister of the First Church of Salem. “The diesel fumes would waft into the neighborhood and be very noticeable, especially in the summer when windows were open, and humidity was high.’’

The black residue, the fumes, and the noise from giant conveyor belts groaning under the weight of coal eventually compelled Barz-Snell to join the Salem Alliance for the Environment (SAFE), a local environmental advocacy group founded in the wake of September 11th to liberate the country from fossil fuels. As a member of SAFE, Barz-Snell joined others in Salem and surrounding communities in fighting to clean up the Salem plant.

Now, fortunately, the days of coal dust are just murky memories, thanks to the advocacy of CLF and community partners like SAFE. The oceanfront site where Salem Harbor Power once stood is slated to become a clean-energy offshore wind port terminal. When it opens in 2026, the Salem Offshore Wind Terminal will serve as a new staging ground for wind farms. As such, it will become New England’s second major port for offshore wind after New Bedford, Massachusetts.

“Salem now has an exciting opportunity to lead our region into a clean energy future,” says Caitlin Peale Sloan, CLF’s vice president for Massachusetts. “As a staging site for offshore wind, the port can finally be used again for a purpose connected to the water.”

Coal’s Long Shadow

It is a victorious ending for an area that, for too long, lived under the dark cloud of coal. The Salem Power Station opened in 1951 as one of more than a dozen coal-fired power plants operating in New England in the last half-century. The soot, mercury, and planet-warming carbon emitted from these behemoths damaged not only our environment and climate but also our health.

According to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, the Salem plant, together with the coal-fired Brayton Point plant in Somerset, Massachusetts, exposed more than 32 million people in New England, eastern New York, and New Jersey to dangerous pollution. The plants were linked to more than 43,000 asthma attacks and nearly 300,000 daily incidents of upper respiratory problems each year around the region. To this day, Barz-Snell ties his own son’s asthma to his early years living near the plant.  

A view of the coal-fired Salem Harbor Power Station in 1984. Courtesy Salem State University archives.

Such figures and anecdotes have for decades spurred CLF advocates to challenge coal plants across New England for violating environmental regulations and harming public health. Not only were outdated coal-fired power plants making people sick and warming the planet, but they were also costly to run and stood in the way of progress towards clean energy. Working with local communities, decision-makers, and the regional electric grid operator, CLF strategically sued plants with the goal of phasing out coal from New England’s energy mix completely. In the case of the Salem Power Station, we formed an alliance with former state Representative Lori Ehrlich, SAFE, HealthLink, and other organizations such as Clean Water Action, doggedly pushing to limit the plant’s activities until it could be shut down for good.

Measured Progress Against Coal

CLF and our partners began our legal onslaught against Salem Harbor in 2003, when we forced the clean-up of toxic ash at the plant. From there, we used every legal angle we could to force the plant to comply with clean air laws – compliance that we knew would make it too expensive to run the plant profitably. By 2011, Dominion Energy, the plant’s owner, gave up. Unable to keep up with stringent pollution rules and competition from cleaner and cheaper energy in the regional market, the energy giant announced it would close the plant altogether. By 2014, the plant had shut its doors for good. Three years later, Brayton Point Station – the region’s largest coal plant – followed suit, leaving Massachusetts coal-free for the first time in decades.

Barz-Snell says that even as early as 2008, the community held a vision for what could follow, especially after the proposal of Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound. The writing was clearly on the wall for the coal-fired power plant, but the lingering question was, what would come next?

“We were concerned that we were going to be left with a padlocked, antiquated piece of coal-fired infrastructure right on the harbor of Salem that would be there for years if we didn’t do anything,” he says. And so, we called on the city and Mayor Kim Driscoll, who was the mayor at the time, to form a reuse committee and look at options.”

In the meantime, Footprint Power stepped in to purchase Dominion’s property to build a gas-fired power plant. That enterprise was restructured in 2022 after filing for bankruptcy, but today continues to operate in one portion of the site as New Salem Harbor. When Crowley, a Florida-based shipping company, stepped in to propose a wind port for the rest of the area, residents celebrated.

Salem Harbor’s newest iteration couldn’t be more ideal for the city and for the region, says Barz-Snell, who has since moved out of the city. Salem is one of only five sites in Massachusetts with waters deep enough to accommodate the ships used to move giant wind turbines out to sea, so a wind launching stage feels natural and in keeping with the port’s industrial history.

“We knew there was inherent value in having that deep water port,” he says.  

Clean Energy Will Bring Big Benefits to the Community

Anxhela Mile, a staff attorney with CLF who has worked with local residents, says that Salem Port’s new life as a clean energy launch pad should benefit the local community. Crowley will operate the port that the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a state economic development agency, will own. The company has pledged nearly $9 million to the city of Salem over 25 years for everything ranging from schools to public safety departments and scholarships for maritime careers. Crowley has also agreed that barges coming into the harbor will run on the port’s electric power supply, so noisy diesel engines will be unnecessary.

“I’m hopeful that the project will have a very positive economic impact on the Salem community,” says Mile.

Not only does the wind port represent an economic opportunity for Salem, but it also holds a promise of delivering clean energy for future generations.

“To eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels, we have to commit to building out new energy resources,” says Barz-Snell. “And it ain’t gonna happen with just solar.”

We need offshore wind infrastructure to decarbonize fully. “That is going to have a profound impact on our future selves and certainly our children,” he says. “If we don’t do that, we’re consigning ourselves to a series of potentially dire scenarios.”

And there’s another benefit, too: No one in Salem will ever have to worry about coal dust covering their front porch again.