Community Engagement Wins Rebirth of N.Y. Power Plant
January 9, 2014
Members of Local 97 and 106 attended hearings and meetings with thousands of other residents, including teachers and firefighters to keep Dunkirk open.
Since 1950, New York State’s substantial hunger for energy has historically been quenched by big servings of coal-fired steam generation. And, since 1950, one of the largest plants was Dunkirk Station, on the shore of Lake Erie, 55 miles southwest of Buffalo, employing members of Syracuse Local 97.
Just a few months ago, with falling prices of natural gas and intensified government efforts to control fossil fuel emissions, Dunkirk and its workers looked doomed.
Four coal-fired units that had once produced 600 megawatts of power had been backed down to only 75 megawatts. Only a long shot bettor would put their money on NRG, the plant’s operator, keeping the facility up and running. But today, Dunkirk Station is back.
On Dec. 7, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that NRG would invest $150 million to rebuild Dunkirk into a 435-megawatt natural gas facility. Cuomo said the agreement would keep the plant running with cleaner energy for at least 10 years, improve electrical reliability and save ratepayers money. National Grid has agreed to purchase power from the upgraded facility.
Cuomo’s announcement crowned a long shot campaign to save the plant that united a broad cross-section of the surrounding community—labor unions and the Chamber of Commerce, Republicans and Democrats. And the IBEW was at the center of the coalition.
Seventy IBEW members will retain their jobs at Dunkirk and dozens of building trades members will be assigned to the conversion project, with completion expected in 2015.
“I looked out into the audience [where Cuomo made his announcement] and people had tears in their eyes,” says Jamestown Local 106 Business Manager David Wilkinson, who had previously joined unionists in Chautauqua County packing public hearings of the Public Service Commission considering the plant’s future.
“We were mobilizing and shooting for the moon, but we still thought the plant would probably be shut down,” says Wilkinson. “I am proud to be a part of the support group that worked toward this common goal, regardless of political or personal differences,” he added.
Local 106 journeymen wiremen and apprentices had worked at Dunkirk for years and stood to lose precious maintenance hours, but—with 30 percent of Dunkirk’s tax base dependent upon the plant—the jobs of teachers, police personnel and firefighters were also at risk.
The plant paid more than $20 million in salaries and benefits and contributed over $60 million to the regional economy, including $7 million in property taxes.
“We put 2,500 people, including our members, teachers and other public employees in a hearing on one of the hottest days in July,” says Wilkinson. Labor and community activists used social media tools to promote a letter-writing campaign to elected leaders asking for support for keeping Dunkirk open.
A Website, Power Up WNY, prominently displayed several labor organizations as its sponsors. Chautauqua County Executive Greg Edwards promoted the campaign. IBEW retirees lent their time to the mobilization. Local 97 retiree Gus Popovich accompanied Wilkinson to the county fair and collected signatures. “He and other retirees put their heart and soul into keeping Dunkirk open,” said Wilkinson.
At the time of Cuomo’s announcement, the coalition to save Dunkirk was planning to transport four busloads of supporters to Albany for a rally.
“Public opinion in Dunkirk was as lopsided in favor of keeping the plant open as one could imagine,” says Local 97 Business Representative Phil Wilcox. Outside of concern about schools and public safety, he says, there were also fears about reduced reliability in the wake of so much generation going offline.
The Buffalo News reported, “Applause [at Cuomo’s announcement] for union leader David E. Wilkinson of Local 106, IBEW, almost matched that for the governor.”
Without the reinvestment and re-start of Dunkirk, one alternative would have been upgrading transmission and delivery systems to bring in more energy from outside the state. And one of the sources would be the Homer City coal-burning plant in Pennsylvania, a frequent subject of litigation for exceeding legal emission limits.
The bipartisan character of support for keeping Dunkirk open was best expressed by State Sen. Catharine Young, a Republican, who successfully pushed for new factors, including the economic stability of communities, to be included in the decision-making process of the Public Service Commission on power plants.
Young—who sponsored the letter-writing campaign to save Dunkirk—told the Buffalo News, “We couldn’t let it [shutdown] happen. We would lose our tax base. We would lose our jobs. We would lose our future. This agreement saves us. It gives a foundation on which to build our economy. It gives us hope. This is our community’s Christmas miracle.”
James Murty, Local 97 assistant business manager, told the Buffalo News, “We are delighted to see this issue resolved in a way that preserves and grows jobs and the regional economy, while offering critical fuel diversity and system reliability. This is one of the first of many chapters emerging from Gov. Cuomo’s Energy Highway Blueprint.”