Rep. Haddad is star of energy documentary

‘Empowered’ places Somerset’s struggles in historical context

REP. PATRICIA HADDAD of Somerset, long a powerful figure in the Massachusetts House, is now also the star of a new documentary written, directed, and produced by California-based filmmaker Kiki Goshay about America’s love affair with energy.

The documentary’s strength is the long look it takes at the country’s haphazard energy evolution from one president to the next, and from one crisis to the next. The story is told using Haddad and Somerset as the laboratory where those twists and turns play out – often with devastating personal and environmental consequences.

“It is a microcosm of all of America,” Goshay says of Somerset on The Codcast.

Somerset is a small community located on Mount Hope Bay across from Fall River. Electricity has long been its chief export, but the fuel used to produce the power has changed with the times. At Brayton Point, the power plant started with coal, shifted to oil when that fuel was cheap and plentiful, and then reverted to coal with the formation of OPEC and the run-up in oil prices in the 1970s.

Then came the environmental movement and the discovery that the Brayton Point plant was polluting the air and killing off the fish in the bay. That led to expensive scrubbers and cooling towers, which made the plant too costly to operate when cheap fracked natural gas came along. The plant was torn down and the cooling towers were imploded in April 2019, paving the way for a turn to offshore wind that has taken far longer than planned with the foot-dragging of the Trump administration finally giving way to the full-speed-ahead approach of the Biden administration. (CommonWealth has written a lot about this segment of the town’s history.)

A scene from the documentary “Empowered” showing the 2019 implosion of the cooling towers from the decommissioned coal-fired power plant in Somerset.

What gives the documentary poignancy is its look at how the twists and turns of American energy policy have been felt in Somerset. Haddad recalls how she kept the windows closed on one side of her house to keep the coal dust out, yet accepted that inconvenience and others because the plant kept the town going financially. Indeed, she fought for the coal plant right up until it was torn down.

“I fell in love with her when I met her because she’s so open and honest,” said Goshay, “Her personal arc is really interesting to me because she first said she was the queen of coal and now [she says] ‘I’m the witch of wind.’ She is proud to have changed her stance as a politician and a leader to adapt to the reality of what was happening. That’s what we need in leadership, people who will adapt to what’s happening right now, not be stuck in a certain position.”

Goshay adopted a very unconventional approach to shooting her series of documentaries over the last three years. She raised enough money to do the filming and editing, using her daughter as the narrator, but she had no commitment from any cable or streaming platform to eventually carry the series. She held a screening of the Somerset episode last week at the local high school.

Goshay said she felt she needed to push ahead with the project for personal reasons as she watched the country fail to wake up to the dangers of climate change. She interviewed scientists, entrepreneurs, and policymakers like Haddad and came away far more optimistic about the nation’s future.

“I called [the documentary series] ‘Empowered’ because it’s exactly how I felt personally,” she said. “When I did this deep dive and met all of these people over the course of two years, I felt this excitement for the future for the first time. I really thought, wow, things are going to be better in five years and even better than that in 10 years because I met the people that are doing the work and I realized we have the tools.”

One of the people she interviewed was Phil Colarusso, a marine biologist with the Environmental Protection Agency in September 2002. While investigating the environmental impact of the Brayton Point power plant, he went on a dive in Mount Hope Bay and over the course of 50 minutes didn’t see a single fish.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Goshay said she asked Colarusso more recently if the fish will ever return. He reminded her of the cleanup of Boston Harbor and its startling return. Goshay said she now believes Mount Hope Bay has a chance to recover.

“If we give nature a chance, and back off from fighting it, it comes back,” she said.