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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Merrimac River Changes

Air Date: Week of

Along the banks of the Merrimac River north of Boston, old mills have been converted into apartments, office space and museums. They still symbolize the past industrial glory of the area. But now a new power plant is slated to go in and commentator Jane Brox worries that the new industry will become obsolete before it has a chance to become historic.


CURWOOD: Rivers are valuable resources of water for drinking, irrigation, power, and transportation, and they can also help define a city's past and shape its future. Commentator Jane Brox recently took a closer look at the relationship between her home town of Dracut, Massachusetts, and the Merrimack River, which runs through it.

BROX: In the 19th century, each rapid or waterfall on the Merrimack River presented an opportunity to build a red brick city and harness power for the manufacture of cotton, then wool. Those mills granted prosperity to the few and gave work to the many, who endured 100 years of slowdowns, accidents, and strikes, in order to put bread on their tables. Then synthetics came in and the companies went south for cheaper labor.

Some of the factories stand now as crumbling monuments. Others have been renovated for apartments, warehouses, and museums of textile history. Whatever the current purpose, it's by those brick factories the cities are still known.

During those mill years, my town Dracut sat where the currents flow sluggish and wide and could not be exploited. Folks here lived a quieter history, mostly to do with farming. The mill clocks and smokestacks stood in the distance, and the farmers slept in the belief that geography was destiny.

But technology changes the possibilities of geography, as we have found out in the wake of the deregulation of the power industry in Massachusetts. Our quiet stretch of river, it turns out, is much sought after these days. A Baltimore company wants to build a 750-megawatt gas-fired power plant along the bank here. The site is uniquely suited, they say, since there's immediate access to transformer lines and gas lines coming up from Texas and down from Nova Scotia.

The river will provide the 2-and-a-half to 4 million gallons of water they'll need daily for their cooling system. The proposed plant is huge. It would be one of the largest ever proposed for a Massachusetts community. It also promises prosperity, $3 to $4 million of revenue to the town yearly for 20 years.

But what's 20 years these days? In our time, technology can make mincemeat of 20 years. Already, hydrogen powered fuel cells are being tested as an alternative to grid-supplied power. This, on top of rapid advances in solar technology and windpower, makes me think we're banking on a dinosaur.

I imagine our new power plant obsolete before it is finished, remaining outsized on our bank, neither picturesque nor useful in its abandonment. It will not have had time to become historical. Though surely weeds will begin to soften the base of its cooling towers, and birds will nest in its nooks. Lichen will begin the deliberate work of breaking down what we've so lately built up. A power plant, serving no human purpose, except perhaps to remind us that technology is destiny.

CURWOOD: Commentator Jane Brox's latest book is called 5000 Days Like This One: An American Family History.



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