Power plant pulls the plug on Perryville; Facing opposition, firm changes site of wood-burning facility


PERRYVILLE -- Promise followed promise. A high-tech future for a dusty old chemical site. Several hundred well-paying jobs. Enough new tax revenue to take care of much of the town budget.

Company officials figured they were making an offer this hard-luck Susquehanna River town couldn't refuse.

But Perryville, while eager for economic revival, decided the last thing it wanted was a power plant, even a newfangled one.

Just as they were rallying to stop the out-of-state company from building a large wood-burning plant at the entrance of their little town, the people of Perryville won.

Providentpower, a start-up energy producer from Wilmington, Del., abandoned its plans this week for a $55 million plant that would have generated electricity from mountains of scrap wood and construction debris.

Ten days before a zoning hearing that was expected to draw hundreds of protesters, the company president, Stephen J. Makowski, said he is sending a letter of withdrawal because "it doesn't make sense to go someplace we're not wanted."

"That's going to make a lot of people happy," Mayor Steven F. Pearson said yesterday. "I've had dozens of people who called me and stopped me since this first came up -- and not a single one of them has been in favor of it."

One of the leading opponents was surprised to learn the fight was over.

Evelyn Hansen, 42, a lifelong resident of the historic downtown, had argued for months that the power plant would only bring trouble -- pollution and heavy truck traffic.

"Are you sure?" she said. "They were so gung-ho.

"I'd still like to see some development there," she added. "Anything but a power plant."

Her sentiments were shared by much of the town that now finds itself at a crossroads. Strategically situated where the Susquehanna River empties into the Chesapeake Bay in Cecil County, Perryville once had a bustling railroad and port.

But over the past three decades, much of its industry left, along with its grocery stores, barber shops and bank.

Today, Perryville (population 2,456) is perhaps best known for the outlet center that bears its name, just off Interstate 95. The town has begun to recover, however, attracting more affluent Baltimore-area commuters with a new housing subdivision and a row of riverfront condominiums.

Providentpower officials arrived last spring, after scouting for suitable properties for waste wood-to-energy plants in Maryland.

The company wants to build a couple of 50-megawatt power plants, each burning 1,200 to 1,400 tons of construction scrap from Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania a day. The electricity would be sold to a local utility.

To make its business more appealing, Providentpower has pledged to meet the strictest federal and state environmental standards.

The company says it is burning debris that would otherwise take up valuable landfill space -- and has come up with a "patented, state-of-the-art process" to contain and break down the gases produced. Excess steam heat would be piped into greenhouses to raise vegetables.

Makowski said he and his partners thought they had found a perfect site for their first plant -- the vacant lot where a Firestone plant once stood.

The 133 acres just outside the town's main commercial strip were overgrown with weeds and abandoned since 1982, when the new owners of the plastics factory closed it down.

"We were misled," said Makowski. "We were led to believe this was desirable, and then, for some reason, they weren't happy with it anymore."

Now that they are giving up on Perryville, Providentpower officials are turning their sights on Pocomoke City, an equally small riverfront town on the Eastern Shore.

The company is negotiating to buy land near the railroad on the Somerset County side of Pocomoke City -- and already has lined up the support of the commissioners, Makowski said.

Even if Pocomoke City embraces the project, it will have to pass a detailed state review. The Public Service Commission and other agencies will investigate everything from economic to environmental consequences.

Pocomoke City is "probably a better site -- more environmentally acceptable and more socially acceptable," said Rich McLean, a project manager with the Department of Natural Resources' power plant research program, who has met with Providentpower officials.

In Perryville, few knew at first of the power plant proposal. Cecil County's former economic development director was an enthusiastic early backer -- as was a representative for the state Department of Business and Economic Development.

But after an April meeting, arranged by the county official, the mayor said he did not hear from Providentpower again.

In November, the company filed an application for a zoning variance -- and the town erupted.

Old-timers feared pollution, remembering the fine ash that used to blanket their cars during peak production at the Firestone plant. New residents predicted a sharp drop in their property values.

Just about everyone was distressed at the prospect of a power plant that would be within a few hundred yards of the town park, 40 acres of woods and ball fields stretching down to the Chesapeake Bay.

Some also were nervous about the company's lack of a track record, while others were more concerned that one of the two main thoroughfares into town would be jammed with as many as 300 to 400 large trucks a day.

"It came as a shock to us all," said Minnie Potter, 75, who has lived downtown for a half-century.

"I'd like to see Perryville booming. I just don't think that would happen with a power plant. They say it won't pollute, but they can't make any guarantees."

The zoning board denied the application. Two weeks later, the company appealed.

So many people crowded into the town hall that some were turned away -- and officials promised to continue the discussion at a second session next week.

Company officials said they would limit truck traffic by shipping in the scrap wood by railroad and possibly by barge. Few townspeople were reassured.

"They would have to do a great deal of dredging to get barges in -- and what would that do to the environment?" said Hansen.

Austin Amos, the town's former mayor, said the outcry was partly out of pride.

"Why do we want someone else's junk? Nobody wants trash from miles away," he said.

Yet he also believes that townspeople were voicing concerns about Perryville's future.

"We're trying to grow, and this isn't the direction we need to be moving in," he said.

"We're trying to keep businesses, get new ones and also keep our small-town atmosphere."

Pub Date: 2/17/99

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