Can We Hear Each Other?

Submitted by Jerry Halberstadt on Tue, 01/03/2023 - 23:18

Rainbow over Peabody Square
Rainbow over Peabody Square

I appreciate the decades of service to the people of Peabody by Charles Bonfanti as he retires from his position as Commissioner of the Peabody Municipal Light Plant (PMLP), as reported on January 2, 2023, by Caroline Enos (Light commissioner steps down over activists' push to stop peaker plant).

Like Mr. Bonfanti, we are all struggling to understand and adapt to what seems like a sudden emergency as we become aware of high rates of illness and death from pollution and the looming threat of climate change. Yet although these existential threats have been known for decades, we have all conspired to ignore them.

The systems and methods we have relied on have brought us to the brink of disaster. We have enjoyed the benefits of abundant energy produced by burning fossil fuels: coal, oil, and gas. But burning stuff creates pollution. And pollution has a direct impact on health. Peabody has a high rate of death from disease caused by pollution, especially by fine particles that are so small that they enter the lungs and blood. People living close to the Waters River Facility of the PMLP have an exceptionally high rate of illness related to pollution.

We know that about 70% of pollution caused by burning fossil fuel comes from the transportation sector, and Peabody is at a highway crossroads, with airline traffic as well as a freight train. The balance comes from cooking, heating, and industry as well as from generating electricity.

The environmental activists who have pushed to stop the construction of the new Peabody peaker, Project 2015A, have a different perspective than that of Mr. Bonfanti and the PMLP Board of Commissioners. Where Bonfanti values keeping the price of electricity low and with reliable service, others see the health of people and the future viability of civilization as equally important. The environmentalists believe we have to act quickly and that there are better solutions to meeting peak needs than burning gas and oil.

Mr. Bonfanti and his fellow board members feel under attack by the environmentalists who do not seem to appreciate the years of dedication required to maintain a reliable, affordable flow of electricity. The environmentalists see other ways to assure the flow of electricity without a continuing reliance on fossil fuel and feel the urgent need for rapid action. To move forward, we all have to let go of our anger and our righteousness and solve problems together.

We can immediately begin to address the impact of pollution on health at the grassroots level as we now can monitor air quality in Peabody and learn how to mitigate the health impacts of bad air. This will require ordinary people to come together to learn new skills and to work together to seek reductions in pollution from transportation, heating, and from power generation.

The technical power solutions already exist and the expertise of the PMLP board, management, and staff will be essential for implementing them. If PMLP is to continue to lead, they will have to become more transparent and engage in robust dialog to serve Peabody for the best possible outcome.

We don’t have to argue with each other. We can come together to listen and learn from each other. Learning to listen is hard, hard for me and most people. But can we at least try? Let’s find some common ground!

This article appears as a Column in the January 6, 2022 edition of the Salem News.