A gas- and diesel-fired power plant being built in Peabody would expose an already “overburdened” community to yet more health-harming pollution, according to an analysis by an environmental advocacy group that opposes the plant.
The plant, a controversial 55-megawatt facility meant to run only during times of peak electricity demand, is expected to begin operations next year. It has drawn strong opposition from local climate activists and residents, not only because it will burn fossil fuel but also because burning gas and diesel releases pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and fine particulate matter, which have been linked to health concerns.
The new research, commissioned by the Massachusetts Climate Action Network and posted on the group’s website on Friday, found that those living within two kilometers (about 1.2 miles) of the project already experience significantly elevated rates of cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coronary heart disease, and stroke when compared with the rest of Massachusetts.
The analysis is based on data from the state, the US Census, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It doesn’t explain what’s behind the health disparities. But Kathryn Rodgers, a Boston University School of Public Health doctoral student who led the research, said they could be linked to legacy pollution left by Peabody’s now-defunct leather factories. There’s also a chance they are linked to exposure to other nearby polluting infrastructure, she said. The report identified 19 miles of major roadway and two existing gas- and oil-fired peaker plants nearby, as well as 11 other businesses in the focus area that could be contributing to air pollution.
Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company, which would own and operate the plant, was not immediately available for comment.
For more than a year, the Peabody Board of Health, the Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, and others have urged the state to conduct a full environmental impact report and comprehensive health impact assessment of the project, to no avail. The new report underscores the need for such an analysis, said Logan Malik, interim executive director of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network.
Rodgers also found that the neighborhood immediately surrounding the plant’s site and seven nearby census blocks all meet the state’s definition of an “environmental justice community,” a classification based on race, income, and level of English language proficiency.
A major climate law the state passed last year requires new potentially polluting projects in or near such communities to undergo special assessments of their environmental impact in the context of other air pollution in the neighborhood. The peaker plant was approved before the law’s passage and therefore exempted, but Malik said it should nonetheless “be held to that newer standard.”
Critics have long voiced concerns that younger and older people will be exposed to the plant’s pollution. The new report notes that two hospitals, four schools, and four long-term care facilities are inside the focus area.
The immediate vicinity also has higher concentrations of children under 5 years old and people over 65 years old than surrounding areas, “suggesting that more vulnerable populations live in close proximity,” according to the report. And while Peabody has lower pediatric asthma rates than the rest of the state, according to the report, it has higher rates of emergency department visits for asthma among children younger than 14.
“Maybe that means that the kids who do have asthma, have more severe asthma, or you have kids who are undiagnosed,” Rodgers said.
Environmental advocates say the report shouldn’t serve as a replacement for an official environmental health review for the plant. Rather, it indicates the need for more official research into the plant’s potential public health effects.
“At the very least, the state should step in to prevent this new facility from causing further harm and exacerbating these existing health outcomes,” Susan Smoller, a Peabody resident and founding member of Breathe Clean North Shore, a grassroots organization working to fight fossil fuel pollution in Peabody. “However, we should be going further than that and retiring both of the existing power plants that are currently polluting and harming our neighbors.”