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Union sparks controversy over Canton solar-power facility

A project to transform a capped Canton landfill into New England’s largest solar-electric development is on track, despite a furor sparked by unionized electricians.

The controversy was triggered by a postcard sent early last month to Canton residents by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 103, an organization that failed to secure a multimillion-dollar contract to help install approximately 24,000 solar panels across 15 acres.

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The mailing, the first of three, featured an image of an explosion, with the headline: “Is there a time bomb being built in Canton?’’

The question relates to a complaint filed in February by the union with the State Board of Examiners, alleging that the facility’s support poles, not erected by licensed electricians, could result in an explosion.

“This is the first large solar project being conducted on a landfill in the state of Massachusetts and it should be done under a microscope,’’ said Sean M. Callaghan, business agent for IBEW Local 103.

An investigation in response to the complaint could wrap up by next month, according to Richard Paris, an inspector in the Office of Investigations for the Division of Professional Licensure.

In the meantime, the postcard elicited a mix of concern and confusion by local residents, and left town officials and project developers rushing to put forward their side of the story.

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It even led the Board of Selectmen to issue a statement last month calling the allegations “inaccurate and untruthful’’ and apologizing to residents for any unnecessary safety concerns caused by the IBEW.

“This renewable energy project remains an example to other communities,’’ said Bill Friel, the town administrator, in a recent interview, adding the project is following all state safety regulations.

The state’s Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs has expressed enthusiasm about the facility. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection gave the solar project a green light.

Southern Sky Renewable Energy, a non-union company selected by the Canton Board of Selectmen nearly two years ago to develop the 5.6-megawatt solar facility on the town landfill, said it expects power to be flowing by early summer.

According to Frank McMahon, a principal at Boston-based Southern Sky, the concerns raised by IBEW Local 103 are without merit.

“In the scheme of things, we question their motivation. We are disappointed they have taken the tack that they have because our project is in compliance with Massachusetts state law,’’ he said.

Licensed electricians were hired at the beginning of February to do all of the electrical work, he said. Three union contractors recommended by IBEW Local 103 missed a deadline to submit bids for the job, and the project manager awarded the job to a non-union electrical contractor.

But according to Callaghan, licensed electricians are not performing the work of installing the support racks for the solar panels.

“This is a complete public safety issue,’’ he said.

Town officials argue that the support racks can be and should be constructed by builders for the sake of structural integrity, and this type of non-electrical work was given a green light by Canton’s building commissioner, said Friel.

“All future solar installations in all of Massachusetts are always going to be exclusively built from their inception from the ground up by licensed electricians with no training in this type of construction? It doesn’t even make sense,’’ said Friel.

The project, which will be three times larger than any other solar facility operating in New England, was described at the outset by Selectman John J. Connolly as “a grand slam’’ for the town.

The landfill, which has been closed since 1989, sat unused for years, during which time the town rejected several other ideas for it, including baseball fields and a new public works facility.

The final deal between the company and the town means that Canton could net about $16.3 million from Southern Sky over the course of the 25-year contract, which includes the land lease, rebates for power generated from the site, and savings on the town’s electric bills.

Popular opinion was strongly in favor of the project before Callaghan’s group filed its complaint.

More recently, a public letter signed by unionized and non-unionized electricians restated the safety concerns raised by Callaghan.

The March 21 letter was signed by Matthew A.M. Lash, assistant executive manager of the National Electrical Contractors Association-Greater Boston chapter; Paul Coleman, president of the Massachusetts Electrical Contractors Association; Rick D’Amato, secretary and treasurer of the International Association of Electrical Inspectors-Paul Revere chapter; Paul Guarracino, president of the National Electrical Contractors Association of Greater Boston; and Robert Venuti, secretary and treasurer of the Municipal Electrical Inspectors Association of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

“The installation of every piece of solar electric generation equipment has significant safety implications that should not be assigned to anyone who is not a qualified electrician. Even though solar electric arrays may look harmless to some, people and animals can be killed or seriously hurt and property destroyed by improper application,’’ said the letter.

“For safety’s sake, we certainly hope Canton officials and contractors at the landfill are compliant with all applicable codes and laws. Cutting corners is dangerous - union or not.’’

Then on April 11, Southern Sky sent residents a letter that called the project a “safe and successful solar development’’ and questioned why the union would “mail brochures containing misleading and factually untrue statements against a solar project that they expressed a sincere desire to work on.’’

Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@gmail.com.

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