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DUNKIRK – Several-hundred people braved freezing temperatures and brisk winds blowing across Lake Erie Saturday to rally in support of transitioning the coal-fueled NRG Power Plant to natural gas.

The power plant was visible to the crowd gathered on the pier across Dunkirk’s harbor, and large piles of coal were dusted with snow.

Mayor A.J. Dolce hopes to fill busloads more people to ride to Albany on Dec. 19 and rally in front of the New York Public Service Commission meeting, which is considering the transition.

The life of the power plant is critical to Dunkirk, he said, noting that taxes on the facility amount to 40 percent of Dunkirk’s budget.

“We moved this rally to the pier and outdoors to show how serious we are,” Dolce said. “We have many stakeholders on board with this mission. We want to show them a strong physical presence in Albany.”

NRG has proposed a $506 million plan to convert the coal-fired power plant to natural gas, arguing that it would lead to lower power costs for ratepayers, would be better for the environment and would give a big boost to the Chautauqua County economy. Without the upgrade, the Dunkirk plant would shut down.

Opposing the conversion of the Dunkirk plant are several independent power producers and environmental groups. The independent power producers say that the conversion of the bigger plant could cause their plants to close, and these independents instead support a National Grid proposal to upgrade the region’s power transmission system.

Environmentalists also oppose the conversion, saying it substitutes one fossil fuel for another. And they fear the increased demand for natural gas would prompt New York to open up its lands to horizontal, deep-well hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

The Public Service Commission is considering the conversion and is expected to make a decision soon.

But in Dunkirk on Saturday, support for the proposal appeared widespread, and the rally attracted several speakers, including Republican State Sen. Catherine Young.

“People are here because they understand how important that power plant is to the future of Western New York,” she said.

NRG Energy Inc. is proposing to convert the existing Dunkirk coal facility to a “combined-cycle” plant powered by natural gas, and it would have the generating capacity to power about 350,000 average homes, according to the supporters’ website. There have been estimates that the overall economic impact would be close to $1 billion.

More than 2,000 people attended a hearing in July on the campus of SUNY Fredonia State to voice and listen to different positions about the proposal to repower the plant.

David Wilkinson, business manager for the IBEW 106 union group from Jamestown, was one of the organizers of the rally Saturday.

He said the project would not only preserve local jobs but create about 500 jobs during a three-year construction plan.

“Imagine this city with 500 construction workers staying in the hotels and spending money in the restaurants and stores,” he said.

Wilkinson said the construction project would bring a much-needed benefit to Dunkirk. He said several other union representatives support the project for the construction and long-term jobs it would bring.

“We’re also here because this is a tremendous need for Chautauqua County,” he went on. He said the local teacher’s union recognizes that the school budgets are supported by property tax dollars paid by the NRG plant.

Other speakers at the rally included Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown; Jacqueline Chiarot, representative for Rep. Tom Reed; and Nancy Baker, the local teacher’s union president.

Supporters of the conversion project also believe that the plant would produce lower-cost energy for Western New York.

Young said that the matter is not on the agenda for the Public Service Commission’s Dec. 19 meeting, but that does not mean the issue could not be discussed and a decision made.

“I think we are close to a decision,” she said.

Supporters were asked to fill out petitions and cards to take to the Albany meeting.

Buses for the trip to Albany will leave at 2 a.m. Dec. 19 from the parking lot at the D-F Plaza.