The Somerset Zoning Board of Appeals approved plans on Thursday for a factory that would supply undersea cable to America’s offshore wind farms, clearing a high hurdle in the permitting process that divided the town, threatened the factory’s future and spurred the resignation of a zoning board member.

The Prysmian Group, which describes itself as the world’s largest cable manufacturer, aims to be among the first suppliers of offshore wind components to build a factory on U.S. soil.

Their chosen site on Brayton Point, one of the few large industrial sites with deepwater access available in New England, is also a poignant symbol of America’s clean energy transition: President Biden gave a speech in Somerset last year praising Prysmian for revitalizing the former site of a coal-fired power plant to hasten the construction of the nation’s first major offshore wind farms.

Prysmian has promised the factory will create between 200 and 350 manufacturing jobs, plus another 50 construction jobs while the factory is being built.

But the company suggested recently that it might walk away from the project unless zoning board members reconsidered a decision banning ships from running on diesel power while they load up on cable at the proposed factory.

The board’s initial actions won a significant concession from Prysmian, whose executives agreed to build a shore-to-ship power line on Brayton Point and retrofit its fleet of cable-laying ships to run on electricity while docked in Somerset.

On Thursday, the Somerset Zoning Board of Appeals granted Prysmian the concession it wanted in return: some wiggle room. The board gave Prysmian the right to load cable onto a maximum of one leased ship a year, which may or may not run on shore-to-ship power.

Prysmian’s chief operating officer, Alberto Boffelli, said the company needs this flexibility in case a ship of their own breaks down or faces significant delays.

The construction of Prysmian’s factory could help Somerset recover from the closure of two fossil fuel power plants that were, until recently, the town’s biggest employers and taxpayers. As the last of the plants was preparing to close in 2016, the annual town report warned that Somerset’s economic forecast was “positively dystopian.”

For decades, Brayton Point’s New England Power Plant and the smaller Montaup Electric Company up the Taunton River paid more than a third of the town’s property taxes. But they also left a daunting legacy of environmental pollution, which has weighed heavily on the minds of town officials and residents as Prysmian proposes another industrial use for the site.

In the 1990s, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management estimated that the New England Power Plant killed 87 percent of the fish in the surrounding Mount Hope Bay, the body of saltwater that connects Somerset to nearby Fall River and Narragansett Bay. The power plant was then replaced by a scrap metal business that racked up more than $3 million in town fines it still has not paid for violating noise and air quality regulations.

Before the zoning board cast its votes on Thursday, board member Bernie Miranda, 77, a lifelong resident of Somerset, recalled Brayton Point’s origins as coastal farmland where he and his siblings camped and foraged for shellfish. He did not welcome the opening of the New England Power Plant in 1963, which generated 1,500 megawatts of power at its peak and survived to become the last remaining coal-fired power plant in Massachusetts.

“My two daughters would go in the yard and play and they’d come back into the house and their dresses were full of soot,” Miranda recalled in a short speech. “My father-in-law’s car in the morning was full of coal dust.”

But Miranda also recognized that the wealth generated by the power plants transformed a rural town into an attractive suburb of 17,000 residents.

“New England and Montaup paid for our schools, paid for our reservoir to be built, paid for our sewer system to be installed. That’s where our tax base is,” Miranda said. "What I want to see is the best and the cleanest industries go to these two areas so we can all enjoy the tax benefits and our kids and our grandkids can enjoy the tax benefits and have the good jobs that are coming.”

Miranda and the ZBA’s two other members voted unanimously to approve Prysmian’s factory after listening to nearly five hours of public comments.

As they prepared to cast their votes, residents in the audience hurled unsupported accusations of corruption at the board’s members for the second week in a row, this time calling for an investigation into the resignation of Miranda’s predecessor on the board, Joseph Fingliss, who opposed revisiting its decision on shore-to-ship power. Fingliss has not issued a public statement accounting for his sudden resignation.

Some Brayton Point residents returned to the microphones four or five times throughout the meeting, describing the difficulty they had breathing when diesel-powered ships visited Brayton Point to pick up scrap metal. A judge ordered that business to shut down last year, citing the damage it caused to the health and property of the neighbors.

Other residents insinuated that town officials were willing to risk the health of Brayton Point residents to improve the town’s financial situation.

But another Brayton Point resident, Lloyd Mendes, argued that his neighbors have been inconsistent and unreasonable with their air quality concerns. Relying on data Prysmian submitted to federal regulators, Mendes compared the emissions of a single cable-laying ship per year with the automobile emissions he said residents already tolerate with little concern.

Mendes’ analysis, which he read aloud at Thursday’s meeting, focused on emissions of volatile organic compounds, which he described as the “smelly fumes from a diesel engine.” The analysis counted automobile traffic in the immediate Brayton Point neighborhood, excluding nearby Interstate 195.

“The potential, not even guaranteed 10 days of diesel operation at Brayton Point per year will boost the volatile organic compounds in our area by 0.3 percent,” Mendes said. “I, as a resident, will not sense that at all.”

“This diesel ship is insignificant in terms of emissions,” Mendes concluded. “This is not a serious issue.”

Other Somerset residents praised Prysmian as a responsible corporate citizen willing to make significant concessions to appease residents’ health concerns.

In addition to agreeing weeks ago to install a shore-to-ship power line at their own expense, and retrofitting their entire fleet to accept that power, Prysmian executives agreed on the spot on Thursday to another requirement from the zoning board: that it pay for a third-party consultant to monitor air quality while the company loads cable onto leased ships. The zoning board reserved the right to revoke Prysmian’s allowance of one non-electrified ship a year if it finds evidence of pollution.

The zoning approval Prysmian received on Thursday is not the final step in the company’s lengthy permitting process, but Prysmian’s chief operating officer, Alberto Boffelli, told The Public’s Radio that it is likely the toughest permitting hurdle they will face.

At least one Brayton Point resident, Patrick MacDonald, has announced plans to file a lawsuit appealing the zoning board’s decision.

Attention in Somerset will also shift to a $20 million tax break Prysmian is requesting over the first seven years of the factory’s construction and operation. By the time the proposed tax increment financing agreement would expire in 2030, assessors in Somerset project that Prysmian will pay more than $9 million in annual property taxes, comprising more than 10 percent of the town’s budget.

The tax agreement will be voted on at a traditional New England town meeting in November, where every registered voter in Somerset who attends will have an equal say in the decision.

Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at