Middletown power plant proposal fuels debate

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Townsend resident Alan Harris joins opponents of a proposed natural gas power plant in Middletown on Feb. 29. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

MIDDLETOWN — Until DNREC approves an air permit application, there can be no large scale technology center coming to southern New Castle County.

Town officials believe that natural gas engines proposed for the Middletown Technology Center will bring improved electrical power generation that drops air pollution due to less coal and oil use, and bring great economic benefit to the Middletown area.

Some citizens are protesting the process, maintaining that Mayor Ken Branner and town council are withholding details that potentially could impact the project in a negative way.

The next big step is the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s consideration of an air permit that will be open to the public to follow.

A site plan calls for a 228,000-square-foot facility to be located next to a Home Depot and Amazon distribution center near U.S. 301 in west Middletown. Cirrus Delaware LLC proposed the project, which will create a spot for stored electronic data and provide a gas generator to back up the electric grid. Up to 52.5 megawatts of electricity can be created, according to the plan.

Early last Monday night at the highly traveled corner of Broad and Main streets, roughly two dozen sign-holding citizens protested plans for the data center that they claim aren’t fully understood by the public. Middletown officials, however, say that the town conducted several public hearings to address any concerns.

The interactions reportedly turned contentious at times, leaving the issues still at the point of debate.

“I still don’t know how much pollution might come from this power plant,” said Middletown resident Angelo Gallego, who said the American Lung Association already has rated Delaware near the bottom nationwide in its air quality.

Middletown resident Pete Sullivan, who organized last week’s demonstration and said four others had been held since October, said he believes the opposition is “gaining traction” as more residents become aware of the plans. He said earlier petition drives and council appearances indicate a public concern to a project requiring closer examination.

“I’m a little disturbed that they didn’t seem concerned that so many people were coming to meetings and asking questions,” he said.

“I’m concerned that the facility will be next to homes, schools, health care facilities,” Mr. Sullivan said. “I’m concerned about the possible pollution and noise that might be created. I’m concerned about a drop in home values.

“I’m concerned that our elected officials are not responding to questions.”

Deciphering information

Mayor Branner believes, however, that the town has had to refute false information spread by opponents in its response to the public concerns. He said a recent meeting in the Spring Arbor neighborhood drew roughly 300 attendees and involved open discussion designed to allay any fears or misinformation.

Longtime area resident Alan Harris of Townsend and others don’t believe enough answers have been provided. He’s especially concerned about emissions being released from the facility, and their potential pollutant effect.

“If this is such a great project, then why can’t we have more details,” Mr. Harris questioned. “The secretive nature of this is scary.”

While a groundbreaking could come near the end of 2017, Mayor Branner said “We’re not trying to do anything fast, there’s no time frame that has been set.”

Mr. Harris said he’s made Freedom of Information Act requests regarding conversations among the town and relevant entities, and the responses are online at NoMiddletownPowerPlant.com.

Last week, Cirrus Delaware pointed to the Beasley Power Station in Smyrna as a 96-megawatt natural gas operation that will be larger than Middletown’s and closer to residences, and said no complaints have arisen from the populace.

The $350 million project will allow the Technology Center to purchase electricity from the town, among other benefits, Cirrus Delaware maintained.

Mayor Branner touted the project as a job creator during construction and then once in operation, adding to Middletown and the school district’s tax base and providing incentive for other businesses to bring operations to the town.

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