Filmmaker Sounds the Alarm about Third North Shore Natural Gas Plant  

by Rob Bonney

If you’ve heard about the “Peabody Peaker,” there’s a good chance it’s because of a new documentary, #StopPeabodyPeaker, released by North Shore resident Steve Andrada.

Filmmaker Steve Andrada

Andrada recently returned to Peabody, where his parents met and raised their family. When he learned that a gas-burning “peaker” plant was planned for a site a mile from his new home, where two other peakers already spew pollution into surrounding neighborhoods, he sprang into action.  

Writing, directing and filming the documentary proved to be educational for Andrada. He was struck by how little most people knew about the energy they use to power their lives. Many residents were unaware of the health effects caused by burning natural gas (methane) to create electricity in a densely populated area, he says. This was particularly concerning since neighborhoods in the vicinity of the two existing Peabody peaker plants are environmental justice neighborhoods with some of the highest rates of asthma in the state.

A Story Hidden from Public View

Andrada used film and interviewing skills honed as a TV news cameraman to unravel a story that had been hidden for many years. He found himself asking, “When you’re looking for a house, where’s the website telling you that you are moving near a polluting place?”

The film is a portrait of those who found the courage to take a stand, and in doing so, were richer for the experience

As he began to dig into the story, Andrada discovered that there had a been a deliberate effort to get the project permitted without public knowledge. The Peaker is being built by the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company (MMWEC), an association of 40-plus municipal light authorities in the state, and many of MMWEC’s members put up the money to build the $85 million plant.

To bring the project to light, it took an anonymous tip to Wakefield Town Councilor Julie Smith-Galvin. The tipster informed her that a proposed third peaker plant for Peabody had received an air quality permit, with apparently no assessment of the impact on air quality in nearby neighborhoods. To learn more, Smith-Galvin and others tracked down city utility company notes, where the development of the vaguely named Project 2015a had been documented over multiple years.

To tell his story, Andrada had to decipher acronyms for organizations he’d never heard of and unravel what these organizations actually did. Community members in the film expressed frustration at the way the peaker was planned and approved without informing or hearing from those living close by. The first public hearing was not held until 2021.

The Heroes of the Story: Community Activists

Wakefield Town Councilor Julie Smith-Galvin addresses a crowd of protesters.

Making the film gave Andrada a new appreciation for local community activists. His film highlights everyday people who kept the Peabody peaker story alive. The film is a portrait of those who found the courage to take a stand, and in doing so, were richer for the experience. We see kayak brigades, grandparents holding banners, passionate and well-researched testimony, singing on the Danversport Bridge, and elected officials demanding we change how decisions like these are made. Six activists staged a week-long hunger strike to highlight the issue.

To cover the $85 million in costs for building the peaker, the plant will need to run for decades; yet Massachusetts has committed to reducing its fossil fuel use by 50 percent by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Investors in this project have been misled; they were not presented with a realistic cost/benefit analysis of the project or alternatives, such as using battery storage for peaker demand.    

Andrada encourages his viewers to find an environmental group, listen, and act. Several local organizations concerned with environmental justice and climate change are introduced in his film.

#StopPeabodyPeaker is being screened for Earth Day at Salem State University on April 11, 2023, at 12:15 in the Ellison Campus Center, MLK Room. On April 14, at 1:40 in the same location, SAFE will be participating in an Earth Day panel discussion, Environmental Justice: The Good, the Bad, and the Just, which will also address the peaker plant. Dr. Marcos Luna, professor of Geography and Sustainability, will be framing and facilitating the discussion.

To learn how you can screen #StopPeabodyPeaker for organizations, schools, or communities where you live, contact Steve Andrada at stevenandrada@me.com. The 40-minute film is also available on youtube.

Rob Bonney is a member of the SAFE Board and leader of Citizen’s Climate Lobby, North Shore. He is one of the activists featured in the film who participated in a week-long hunger strike to Stop the Peabody Peaker.