ONE OF THE BIGGEST prizes of the emerging offshore wind industry – an onshore subsea cable manufacturing facility providing jobs, tax revenue, and the beginnings of a US supply chain – is in danger of slipping away at Somerset’s Brayton Point because of a dispute over a zoning condition.

Prysmian Group, based in Italy, is proposing to build a $250 million factory employing nearly 300 people and generating local taxes of $9 million, which would represent about 12 percent of Somerset’s current budget. The factory would supply transmission cables to offshore wind farms up and down the Atlantic Coast and help reduce the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.

President Biden recognized the symbolic importance of the Prysmian facility in July 2022, when he used Brayton Point – the former site of one of New England’s largest coal-fired power plants — as the backdrop for a speech outlining his vision for addressing climate change. He described Brayton Point and the Prysmian cable manufacturing plant as being “on the frontier of clean energy in America.”

In most communities, the Prysmian proposal would be considered an enormous opportunity. But in Somerset, many have viewed it warily, in the context of what has come before. Residents, particularly those near Brayton Point, have paid a steep environmental price over the years for producing the electricity the region runs on. They also paid a high price when the owner of Brayton Point knocked down the massive coal-fired power plants there and leased space to a scrap metal export business that spewed noise and dust into the nearby community.

Now, with the long-awaited offshore wind industry finally knocking on the door, the neighbors of Brayton Point are in no mood to compromise. They are welcoming Prysmian, but insisting on a zoning condition that would require all cable-laying ships docking at the facility to turn off their noisy, dirty diesel engines while in port and operate using what’s called shore-to-ship electricity.

Prysmian initially balked at the idea because retrofitting its ships to use electricity would be expensive and the power needs of the ships would be massive. But then the company changed course, agreeing to retrofit its entire fleet with one condition – occasionally Prysmian hires third-party ships to lay cable and the company said it couldn’t guarantee that those ships would be equipped to run on shore-based electricity. The company wanted an exemption from the zoning condition during those rare instances.

At packed hearings of the Zoning Board of Appeals, neighborhood pressure to stand firm against dirty diesel ships was intense. On September 21, the zoning board voted 3-0 to approve a planned development permit with 14 conditions – one of them requiring all ships docking at the Prysmian facility to run on shore-based electricity. All three board members strongly supported the decision.

Prysmian’s Leonardo da Vinci vessel docking at one of the company’s other plants. (Photo courtesy of Prysmian)

Prysmian called the condition “highly problematic and infeasible as written” – and urged the board to reconsider, promising to allow only one non-Prysmian ship a year until 2041, when the prohibition on diesel operations would be absolute. The Healey administration also weighed in, pointing out that several pieces of key information presented at the zoning hearing were inaccurate.

At another packed hearing on September 28, the zoning board backed away from its earlier decision, voting 2-1 to reconsider its earlier vote, setting the stage for a showdown over the Prysmian plant at an upcoming meeting. The lone dissenter on that vote resigned on Thursday.

Jamison Souza, the chair of the Somerset Select Board, thinks the Prysmian facility represents an incredible opportunity for his town, the state, and the country. “It’s a chance for Somerset to lead the [energy] industry again and be a leader for renewables,” he said. “We’re talking about major jobs and major tax dollars. It is a no-brainer.”

But Souza is nervous about the high-stakes vote coming at the zoning board and the divisiveness the issue has brought to the town. “I don’t think anybody thought it would come to this,” he said.

Historical context important 

Electricity has long been Brayton Point’s chief export, but the fuel used to produce the power has changed over time – from cheap coal initially to even cheaper oil and then back to coal when OPEC came along in the 1970s and succeeded in driving up the price of oil.  

The burning of fossil fuels has taken its toll on Somerset, which is located on Mount Hope Bay across from Fall River. Many residents recall having to reguilarly wipe the coal dust from their car windshields. There’s the story about the marine biologist with the Environmental Protection Agency who took a 50-minute dive in the bay in 2002 and didn’t see a single fish.

Environmental concerns eventually caught up with the Brayton Point power plant, forcing the installation of expensive scrubbers and cooling towers that over time made the facility uncompetitive with plants running on cheap natural gas. The plant, the town’s largest taxpayer, was shut down in 2017 and the cooling towers were imploded in April 2019. The company that bought the property planned to cater to the emerging offshore wind business, but foot-dragging in Washington put that plan on hold and prompted the developer to lease space at Brayton Point to a scrap metal export business.

The scrap metal business pushed the neighborhood adjacent to Brayton Point over the edge. Trucks carrying scrap metal rumbled down the access road. Stockpiling and loading the metal onto ships at Brayton Point was noisy and dirty, with metal dust drifting through the air, blanketing the neighborhood, much as coal dust did years before.

Scrap metal is piled high at the Brayton Point Commerce Center, waiting for a ship to arrive to take it to Turkey. (File photo by Bruce Mohl)

The neighborhood mobilized, seized control of town government by electing people sympathetic to its concerns, and won a decisive battle in the state Land Court that shut down the scrap metal business.

Nancy Thomas, one of three Somerset women who played key roles in the fight against the scrap metal business, told CommonWealth in March last year that she took enormous pride in how a small residential neighborhood fought big business to do what’s right. “For someone who has lived in this neighborhood over 50 years, I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve accomplished,” she said. 

It was against this backdrop that Prysmian came on the scene, pitching its plan to build a facility to manufacture transmission cable for the offshore wind industry. By most accounts, Prysmian, one of the leaders in the industry, was a breath of fresh air, patiently listening to community concerns and addressing them in a forthright manner.

Initially, Prysmian did not plan to use shore-to-ship electricity during the loading of its vessels. Its plan called for loading cable at the Brayton Point factory seven to 10 times a year, with each  loading requiring a diesel-powered ship to pull cable aboard 24 hours a day for seven to 14 days.

In January, in response to community concerns, Prysmian said it committed to build its factory to be “shore-power ready.” In September, after months of study, the company committed to retrofit its entire fleet of vessels to operate using shore power.

“This is a groundbreaking commitment, as it will make Prysmian the first and only company in the world whose entire cable fleet is equipped for shore-to-ship power,” the company said.

The company is planning a fleet of eight vessels, six of which would be used at Brayton Point. The company said it also uses third-party vessels when its own ships are not available because of accidents, repairs, or other issues. Based on data from the last five years, Prysmian estimated it would use non-Prysmian vessels 20 to 30 percent of the time, which is why it asked the Somerset zoning board for permission to use non-Prysmian vessels two to three times a year. These non-Prysmian vessels, because they don’t belong to the company, could not be required to operate on shore-to-ship power, the firm said.

 Zoning board united

 Democracy in Somerset is up close and personal. At meetings of the Zoning Board of Appeals, the board members sit behind a table with their backs to the wall, facing members of the public sitting in chairs just a few feet away. The meetings often feature personal exchanges between board members and members of the audience, with the exchanges sometimes getting testy.

At the meeting on September 21, the three board members each explained their positions. Joseph Fingliss, the most outspoken supporter of shore-to-ship power, said when he joined the board he swore to promote the health, welfare, and safety of the town. He said he didn’t see how allowing large vessels to run their diesel engines for 14 days at a time would be promoting anyone’s health.

He said Rebecca Tepper, the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, had encouraged Prysmian to implement a shore-to-ship power system when the project came in for a state environmental review. “This was the Massachusetts recommendation to us,” Fingliss said. “They are the professionals. They know best.”

He also downplayed the difficulty of adopting shore-to-ship power, saying New Bedford and Fall River both have shore-to-ship power and Somerset should too. “We want them,” Fingliss said of Prysmian. “We welcome them, and I think this is a very small thing to ask of them.”

Fingliss also urged the badly divided town to come together on Prysmian. “This is our most pivotal time,” he said. “We’ve got this section of town against this section of town, this board against this board. It’s absolutely gone insane. It’s crazy. It’s ruined relationships. It has broken up friendships. It is literally destroying this town.”

James Pimental, another board member, seemed torn by the decision. He said he was worried the company might walk away if the board insisted on full shore-to-ship power, but he was also  worried about the health impacts from diesel engines.

“I want to see this project come into town, but I just can’t live with the idea of me doing anything that would harm a resident,” he said.

Steven Cadorette, the board chair, said he was willing to let Prysmian walk away if it wouldn’t agree to 100 percent shore-to-ship power. “If [shore-to-ship power] is the deal breaker, then unfortunately it’s the deal breaker,” he said.

Board flip-flops

Despite the initial 3-0 vote to require all ships docking at the facility to use shore-based electricity, Prysmian and the Healey administration urged the board to go back and reconsider its earlier decision. They pointed out that some of the statements made at the September 21 zoning board meeting were inaccurate and made a counteroffer on the issue of non-Prysmian vessels docking at the facility.

Alberto Boffelli, the chief operating officer at Prysmian, said many ports, including New Bedford and Fall River, have shore-to-ship power, but only at low voltages for relatively small boats. He said cable-laying vessels require very high voltages, which are available at only 10 ports in the United States. Company officials said the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal offers a maximum of 480 volts, while a cable-laying ship requires 4.5 megawatts at 6,600 volts, more than is required to power Terminal C at Logan International Airport.

A rendering of the Prysmian subsea cable manufacturing facility proposed for Brayton Point in Somerset.

Bofelli said the company would agree to limit non-Prysmian ships at Brayton Point to one per year, not the two to three the company had proposed previously. He also said the company would agree to all ships using shore-to-ship power by 2041.

“This proposed new condition still represents a significant economic and industrial hardship for Prysmian, but we respect the opinions expressed during the hearings,” Bofelli wrote. ”We offer the compromise in the hope that we can resolve this matter in a mutually acceptable manner.”

Rebecca Tepper, the governor’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, wrote the board five days after the vote to clear up any confusion about the state’s environmental review of the Prysmian project. She said the state issued an environmental impact report certificate for the Prysmian project on February 17. She said the certificate encouraged installation of a shore-to-ship power system because of comments submitted to the state by the town, town residents, and Prysmian. But she said the award of the environmental certificate was not dependent on installation of such a system.

“I respectfully urge the Zoning Board of Appeals to make every effort to correct the record and reexamine the merits of the board’s decision given our input,” Tepper wrote. “The Prysmian project complied with and met all Massachusetts Environmental Protection Act requirements, responded to requests for project design changes, and appropriately evaluated options regarding ship-to-shore power.”

Kathy Souza, one of the women who led the fight against the scrap metal export business and wants 100 percent compliance with shore-to-ship power for boats, said something about Prysmian’s stance doesn’t add up. “If anyone thinks this is about one ship a year, they’re out of their mind,” she said, suggesting she didn’t trust the company to keep its word and honor the proposed new agreement. 

At a meeting of the zoning board on September 28, the tone was very different than at the previous week’s meeting, where officials took a hardline stance and sounded ready to walk away from a deal – and the $9 million a year in tax revenue it would generate. 

Cadorette, who a week earlier indicated he could live with the zoning condition being a Prysmian deal breaker, changed his mind. “This is way too important, way too important to just say no to reconsideration,” he said.

Pimental, who has served on the zoning board for 14 years, also changed course. “I don’t want to see them walk away one foot away from the finish line,” he said of Prysmian. “This is one of the most consequential decisions this board has ever made since I’ve been on it.”

Fingliss urged his colleagues to first seek a more extensive legal opinion on whether the board can reconsider its earlier vote. When that move was rebuffed, he voted no. On Thursday he resigned. He offered no explanation for his decision in his resignation letter, although he and his family were taking a beating on social media.

What happens next is still taking shape. Agendas have not been released yet for zoning board meetings this coming week and the following week, but the expectation is that the proposed Prysmian plant will be front and center and a final vote will decide whether the town’s clean-energy ship will come in or not.