Power plant proposal divides community

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In this town of 1,200, the topic of conversation at the Blue Bird Café is usually the evening special.

"These days, at some point in the night, Tenaska will be brought up," said waitress Courtney Lawrie. 

Tenaska is the company that's considering building a $500 million natural gas-fueled power plant in Morristown's Industrial Park. 

"As a small town, most of your townspeople may feel that they're being encroached upon," said retired teacher Diane John.

"It's going to be a battle whether it comes here or not, and I think the fear of not knowing is getting most people talking," added Lawrie. 

Some aren't just talking though. They're protesting with signs in hand and in front yards.

"We like are water fresh! We like our water clean! We like our water fresh! Stop Tenaska, please," chanted residents Wednesday night, carrying signs outside a meeting at the town hall, where a Tenaska representative came to meet with the town council and residents.

"Air and water quality. The way of life that we are used to, our children, our grandchildren, our wells, lots and lots of concerns," Janet Hallgrath said. 

Hallgrath isn't alone. Hundreds came to town hall in a standing room only crowd Wednesday night. They brought questions and concerns for Tenaska.

"It's very common for people to have questions this early in a project, and fear of the unknown is a very powerful thing," said Helen Manroe from Tenaska.

According to Manroe, the plant would use 200,000 gallons of water on a hot day, but that residents don't need to be concerned the plant would dry up their wells.

"It's not in our interest to pick a water source that's not sustainable because if we were to drain the aquifer, then we wouldn't have any water to operate," she explained. 

"Our concern and our interest is in finding a sustainable water source that will serve both our needs and the needs of the surrounding community, and that's what we will be looking for," Manroe added.

If built, the plant would be capable of producing up to 900 megawatts of electricity, enough to power around 900,000 homes in the region. The plant's size and configuration though, would be based on customer need, according to the company.

Construction could begin as early as 2015, with an opening in 2018.

During construction, the plant would create 600 to 700 jobs and then about 25 full-time jobs. Even with that information, some residents are still skeptical about the proposal and are not ready to roll out the red carpet for Tenaska.

"I raise a lot of animals and I don't know if the sound of those turbines will have any effect on them or not," said Merrill Storm.

Manroe said Tenaska isn't sure they'll even be building here, as the company talks with town officials.

"It takes a long time to put one of these plants together," said Manroe. It's like a big puzzle, and you have to put all the pieces together and it's very complicated. We don't necessarily know everything about the plant right now," she added. 

"If you got a power plant humming 24-7, it's going to change the way of life of a lot of people," said Hallgarth. And with the protest signs already out and Tenaska dominating dinner conversations, it seems it already has.