Some Middletown residents said they are frustrated with the way they have been treated by the town’s municipal government, particularly Mayor Ken Branner.
At Monday’s Middletown Mayor and Council meeting the display of frustration over the controversial power plant for the proposed Middletown Technology Center dominated the evening.
Most of the residents who spoke up said afterwards that they were appalled by the manner in which Branner conducted himself towards constituents during the public hearings.
Heated exchanges took place between Branner and residents who oppose the construction of a 52.5 megawatt natural gas power plant proposed by the Milford-based developer Dennis Silicato, Dover-based Duffield Associates, and Cirrus LLC.
Members of the resident group “No Middletown Power Plant” said they bared the brunt of Branner’s behavior when they expressed their objections and concerns over the $400 million project.
“The mayor got defensive very quickly when we spoke,” said Pete Sullivan, a member of No Middletown Power Plant. “We also got interrupted on and on.”
During the discussion, Branner refuted statements that residents claim he had made at previous meetings, including that the project would break ground by October 2015, and that the project was for a backup generator.
“I never ever said [the project was a] ‘backup generator.’ I never said that!” Branner said to Angelo Gallegos, a member of the the citizen group.
“Well, I tend to disagree with you…” Gallegos began saying, but Branner clapped his hands loudly and yelled, “Time out! Time out!”
There were other times when Branner asked speakers if they were “done.”
Mark Digliobizzi, another resident stood up to express concern over the silence from the councilmen during the discussion.
“Is it protocol for you, Mayor Branner, to only talk and the councilmen to not respond?” he asked. Branner didn’t address Digliobizzi’s question.
Newark resident Kevin Sullivan, who has six grandchildren living in Middletown, attended the meeting and said he was also puzzled by the councilmen’s lack of engagement with the public.
“It was strikingly noticeable and extremely disappointing to me that the councilmen representing the people of Middletown appeared to be very submissive to the dictates of Mayor Branner and only bodily present at the meeting,” Kevin Sullivan told the Transcript. “They didn’t seem to be the least bit interested in understanding the well-informed opposition to the power plant in Middletown.”
Residents brought up a number of questions at the meeting, including the necessity for the data center to have its own power plant.
The town has proposed to supply the data center with two high voltage 138 kV feeds from its substation.
Right now, one 138 kV feed supplies the entire town with its electric and it has only gone down one day in the past 17 years.
Pete Sullivan said that having two lines is more than enough redundancy for the data center.
“These [high power voltage] lines are higher than the regular power lines you have going through town. They’re not subjected to go down by an ice storm or wind… So the line we have now has been up 99.9 percent of the time,” Pete Sullivan said. “And, if you have two of those lines what’s the reliability then? What are the chances of them simultaneously going down?... it’s extremely small.”
But project proponents argue that they want to make sure the data center – which will house IT cloud equipment – never goes down, and that having its own electric generation plant will guarantee that.
Residents also question claims that the project will bring 125 jobs to Middletown. According to documents, last May, Cirrus LLC applied for a $7.5 million grant through the Delaware Economic Development Authority to fund the project by stating that it will create new jobs.
Opponents have pointed out, however, that 25 of those jobs will be performed by professionals who will have to relocate to Middletown from out of state.
Gallegos, who holds a graduate degree in computer science, said that Cirrus’ claim that it will create 80 to 100 jobs in Delaware is hypothetical and doubtful given the way cloud computer services operations are generally run.
“One [way I see this is that] you can rent the space [in the data center] to a corporation and they’ll bring their own people, set up the computers, and then what they are going to do to save money is to remotely monitor them. So, it’s not clear to me that you’re going to have 100 people working there at any one time,” Gallegos explained. “That’s the model that goes on with these companies, once they have their equipment in place and they’re administering remotely, the only time they’re going to send someone out there is when they have a problem. So, I don’t see how those jobs are going to materialize.”
Richard Forsten, a lawyer with Saul Ewing LLP which is representing the project’s proponents, said that his clients stand by the job numbers provided.
Plant’s operating hours and profits
Residents also said that they wanted clarity on the times when the power plant would be running.
Forsten said that those he represents will be applying for a minor air permit from DNREC which would allow generators to run only 50 percent of the time, maximum.
“This is not being done to sell power back to the grid – that was another project with a different economic model. Our permit is not going to allow us to generate power all the time, only during the peak hour demands, when the strain is on the grid. So, that’s where the economics factor in,” Forsten said.
Gallegos and Pete Sullivan expressed skepticism at Forsten’s statement saying that investors of the multi-million dollar project are going to expect a return on their money and that therefore the power plant will need to make a much higher profit.
Potential health hazards
There is also a great amount of concern among those who oppose the project over the environmental and health problems that it may bring.
According to the American Lung Association, Delaware’s air quality is one of the worst in the nation.
Branner maintains, however, that natural gas is cleaner than coal for electricity generation.
But environmentalists like Stephanie Heron of the Wilmington chapter of the Sierra Club, pointed out that though natural gas is cleaner when burned, in the long term it is as hazardous to human health as coal.
“Building a new power plant that would run on fossil fuels, it’s not necessarily what any university or scientist is advocating in 2016,” Heron said.
Heron, who lives in Wilmington but said she has young cousins living in Middletown, also expressed disappointment at how the public debate had unfolded that evening.
“I know I’m not from Middletown and I’ve been to council meetings in a lot of other towns and I really appreciate the atmosphere of this room – the chairs are very nice – however I’m a little shocked and appalled at your tone towards your constituents – the residents of your town,” Heron told Branner. “Your job is to listen to your constituents.”
At the end of the meeting the council approved a tariff resolution for the project. This will allow proponents to seek the necessary air permits from DNREC. More public hearings will be held by the agency before it issues any permits.
Pete Sullivan said that in the past DNREC has approved most permits for these types of projects, but that his group will continue to raise awareness about the power plant.
“At the end of the day, we have the facts on our side,” he said.