The power plant and the citizens' group
Chicago-based Invenergy is a major developer of renewables, particularly wind power. Pennsylvania is a state with a lot of untapped wind potential. When Invenergy went scouting for locations in northeastern Pennsylvania, though, it was a different resource that appealed. Gas flows fast from Pennsylvania’s share of the Marcellus shale play, unlocked by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The company, which holds about a third of its portfolio in gas, wanted a big plant that would be so efficient it could win out in the competition to provide electricity. Invenergy sees gas as a key part of a “clean energy” future, said Dan Ewan, the company’s vice president of thermal development.
In Jessup, less than 10 miles northeast of Scranton, the company had easy access to what it needed: Not just gas, but also workers, transmission lines, even train tracks to move equipment in.
“The project provided us with a lot of the things that make a power plant a good investment,” Ewan said.
In 2015, as the public heard about Invenergy’s plans, the company said the plant would be good for the community, too. Some in Jessup, and unions in the broader region, emphatically agreed. They pointed to the jobs for hundreds of construction workers — many of whom were struggling after a long building drought triggered by the housing bust — and the money for local businesses that could benefit from the activity.
But once construction ended and the 30-employee plant fired up, it would pump out pollution for the four or more decades of its expected life. The prospect that it could displace more-toxic coal plants didn’t seem a fair trade to some residents, with the nearest coal-fired sites more than 40 miles distant and tiny. And they were upset to learn that their local officials OK’d waiving taxes on the Moosic Mountain property through 2023 to encourage development — after Invenergy had already decided to build on it.
These people banded together, a few, then dozens — a retired accountant, a nurse practitioner, a winery owner, a business manager and a former Jessup councilman, among others.
Calling themselves Citizens for a Healthy Jessup, they first tried to convince their borough council not to amend zoning to allow the development on the proposed site, which sits half a mile from homes. Invenergy told the council that Jessup was in violation of state law because a power plant could not feasibly be built anywhere in the community, even in the part of Jessup with zoning that permitted it. The residents presented a case that the company could in fact construct a plant elsewhere in Jessup — a smaller one.
They hired a lawyer, pored over arcane regulations, went to each council meeting and sent a mailer to everyone in the borough. Jessup’s planning commission agreed that the zoning should remain unchanged, but the council had the final say.
And the council voted in Invenergy’s favor in 2015 — first to alter the zoning, later to allow the plant at full size. That followed a “build the plant” public-relations campaign by Invenergy and its supporters that included an opinion piece from former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who’d received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the politically connected developer selling the land to Invenergy.
Council members said the plant’s economic benefits, in their estimation, outweighed any disadvantages.
“I just personally felt that it was a boon for this area,” said Maggie Alunni, a Jessup councilwoman now finishing the last of her 16 years on that body after being voted out in the primary. “I honestly believe this is going to bring more industry and more prosperity to our area than if we had turned it away.”
Most people in a one-sided fight probably would have given up at that point. But “it was such a large, life-changing impact,” said Thomas J. Fiorelli III, a Citizens for a Healthy Jessup leader who served as a councilman from 2001 to 2006. So, as the focus shifted from whether the plant should be built to how much money the community would receive from it, the residents regrouped. They wanted Jessup to get as much as it could.
This time, they thought, they and their council surely would see eye-to-eye.