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FREDONIA – Northern Chautauqua County residents turned out in droves Monday night in an intensive community-wide effort to lobby the state’s Public Service Commission to “Repower Dunkirk.”

Estimates of about 2,000 – from young school-age children arriving with parents straight from Little League practice to the community’s eldest residents who came aboard buses or with the aid of a walker or wheelchair – filled up overflow areas of Fredonia State College’s small Williams Center on a 90-degree day.

Their message was overwhelming and clear: Dunkirk and Chautauqua County support a $506 million proposed investment transitioning a scaled-back aged Dunkirk coal power plant to a state-of-the-art natural gas facility.

One by one, many of the 80 speakers who signed up to speak, and continued to do so approaching 11 p.m., told Administrative Law Judge Kimberly Harriman and Public Service Commissioner Gregg C. Sayre on the record that they need the project – for the community’s survival.

“This asset, if it’s dismantled, will crumble Dunkirk,” said Doug Champ, a Jamestown resident with a background in utility management.

The commission is weighing competing proposals from NRG to transition the plant to a natural gas facility and National Grid, which believes upgrading its modes of transmission is in the best interest of its electric ratepayers. If the natural gas repowering does not go through, the Dunkirk plant would be scheduled to be “mothballed” and shuttered by 2015. That would result in the loss of about 70 local jobs as well as millions of dollars of tax revenue to the city, county and Dunkirk City School District.

Both sides had an opportunity to present their case to the public before a brief question and answer period was followed by a few hours of public comment on the issue.

Dunkirk City School Superintendent Gary J. Cerne presented a dire picture if Dunkirk isn’t repowered: tax increases of more than 40 percent, cuts to about 58 teaching positions not to mention other drastic reductions in student programs and offerings.

Members of the school’s teaching association and other personnel also spoke out at the hearing in support of the NRG plan.

“Please support Repowering the NRG Plant, so our kids will have a chance for a brighter future,” Cerne implored the PSC.

Kathy Tampio of Silver Creek, who is the executive director of the Chadwick Bay Regional Development Corp., called NRG’s repowering plan a “truly regional project that’s critical to the economy of this region.”

Added Mark Gruber, a city police officer: “Don’t allow Dunkirk to become another notch in the Rust Belt. Repower NRG.”

“Without NRG, we will lose a huge funding source, which could potentially lead to us closing our doors,” said Edward “EJ” Hayes, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Northern Chautauqua County based in Dunkirk, which services about 300 young people.

“That’s the one thing about this community, they really rally to the cause,” added Hayes.

Among the large number of supporters were a smattering of environmentalists who raised concerns about substituting one fossil fuel for another. Not only, they said, would that ensure decades more reliance on such fuels, but they also fear the increased demand would force New York to open up its lands to horizontal, deep-well hydraulic fracturing.

Charles Bowman, the executive director of the Western New York Peace Center, said the PSC needs to take New York in the direction of renewable energy, especially wind and solar power.

“The serviceability of a transmission line issue goes away,” said Bowman, “when we generate our own power locally.”

Another speaker suggested NRG take its $506 million and use it to put 120 windmills at $3.5 million apiece to create renewable energy rather than utilizing natural gas.

“Would that approach not bring power to this are at a much lesser rate?” he asked.

The PSC is scheduled to accept comments on the issue until Aug. 16. Following its review of the case, it will make a final determination as to Dunkirk’s fate and that of the Cayuga coal power plant near Ithaca.

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com