Critics of MTC thwarting progress (Whipple)

There has been plenty of commercial development in the Middletown area of late, mostly related to consumption (e.g., stores, fast food restaurants, and healthcare facilities) versus production (which creates wealth versus spending it). The Amazon Distribution Center was a welcome exception, and now – subject to obtaining the necessary governmental approvals – another 21st Century project is in the works.

Here’s a basic description of the Middletown Technology Center (MTC), gleaned from press reports: 49-acre site off US-301, adjacent to the Amazon Distribution Center. Main building would be about 180K square feet, designed to house computer servers and other IT infrastructure to tenants. Project would include a 52-megawatt generator fueled by natural gas to ensure uninterrupted power for the facility and possibly provide excess power for others during periods of peak demand. Estimated jobs: some 2,000 for the construction phase, 50 to 100 full time jobs for the operation.

Middletown’s Town Council approved the “record plan” for the MTC over a year ago, after several contentious public meetings, but others claim that many questions remain unanswered. The critics have continued their efforts (speaking up at public meetings, obtaining signatures on petitions, writing letters to the editor, and organizing a demonstration by about 30 people) to block the project.

The bone of contention isn’t the data center per se, but rather the associated generator fueled by natural gas. Resultant emissions would supposedly pose a threat to the health of residents, home resale values, etc. This concern has been underscored by rhetoric like “where can I go to breathe some good air” or approving the project would amount to “permission to pollute.”

Why couldn’t the MTC buy power from the grid or use some form of “renewable energy” to meet its needs? The obvious answers (which critics seem reluctant to accept): Data centers require a lot of electric power, which must be highly reliable and also economical. Periodic outages rule out reliance on power from the grid, intermittent wind or solar power is a nonstarter, and Bloom Energy fuel cells would be prohibitively expensive.

Another tack has been to question the integrity of backers of a “mysterious and dark” project that appears to be on the “fast track” to approval.

“I strongly resent this power plant being dumped on Middletown,” stated one letter writer, “as if its planners figure they can get away with it here when they couldn’t in Newark [a reference to a data center/power plant project slated for the Star Campus of the University of Delaware, which was doomed by strong community opposition].”

Another writer cited tentative approval of a $7.5 million infrastructure grant from the Delaware Economic Development Office as a basis for demanding public disclosure of the identity of the private investors “who will be Delaware’s business partners when and if $7.5million of taxpayer money is co-mingled with financing [some $250 million] from unknown sources.”

The latest and potentially most serious obstacle is a study (conducted in connection with the DNREC permitting process) that found operation of the MTC at full capacity could result in microscopic particulate matter (aka PM 2.5) in the area “jump[ing]” to 95% of the federal allowable daily level at peak times and 94% of allowable annual levels (vs. current annual level of about 90% for northern Delaware).

The project developer (Cirrus Delaware LLC) claims this concern is overstated, as it may well be, and in any case the study didn’t conclude the federal limit would be exceeded – only that the current margin of safety would be reduced. Query whether this should be seen as justifying the rejection of a promising project like the MTC.

No matter, Cirrus representatives were peppered with so many questions from attendees at a recent DNREC workshop on the MTC that that they reportedly “at times had to interrupt in order to finish” their relatively “brief presentation.” Given the level of interest, a second workshop will be scheduled – which is said to be unprecedented – before the public hearing that will be scheduled after DNREC’s proposed findings on the MTC application are published.

“We want everyone to be informed,” the director of DNREC’s Division of Air Quality was quoted afterwards. “The more information I can provide, the better the comments sent to our office will be.” Maybe, but this assumes the critics are actually seeking information rather than simply trying to delay and ultimately derail the project.

Too bad, because this sort of ideological opposition puts a damper on investment proposals that could be a solid plus for the local and state economy. As a resident of the Middletown area, I hate to see it developing.

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