Wood-burning plant in Springfield given the go-ahead

By Melanie Muller

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On Nov. 19, the Secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs issued a statement that Palmer Renewable Energy will not be required to complete an environmental impact report (EIR) before going forward with plans to build a wood-burning, or biomass, power plant in Springfield, and issued a certificate finding that “no further MEPA review is required [for the Palmer plant] at this time.”

Ian Bowles, the state’s top environmental official, made the statement in response to a petition for fail-safe review under the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) filed by the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) on behalf of 12 Massachusetts residents. The petition was filed during a comment period on Palmer Renewable Energy’s Notice of Project Change for the plant.

CLF lawyers argued in the petition that an environmental impact report under fail-safe review was warranted because, while the project did not exceed MEPA review thresholds for an EIR, “MEPA review thresholds, which were established long before the science of biomass carbon accounting took root…set too high a bar for requiring full EIRs.”

Bowles stated in his response that he considered environmental evaluations that had already been conducted to be sufficient.

“The proposed project has already been subject to MEPA review, and has complied with MEPA requirements concerning greenhouse gas impacts.”

In Palmer’s original project, the plant, located at 1000 Page Boulevard in Springfield was proposed to have the capacity to burn 700 tons of construction material and 200 tons of green wood chips and would have produced 38 megawatts of electricity.

In addition to the petition by the CLF, 400 form letters were sent by individual residents to the MEPA office urging that an EIR be conducted during the comment period.

The firm is now planning to burn 1,834 tons of untreated wood brush and debris and to produce 35 megawatts. Truck deliveries and general vehicle deliveries will also increase at the plant, according to the Springfield Republican.

 In the Notice of Project Change, Palmer stated it no longer plans to burn construction and demolition materials at the site, allowing it to circumvent a state moratorium on such plants. State officials said Palmer still needs some permits to begin construction, according to the Republican .

The Springfield City Council originally approved a special permit for construction of the Palmer plant in a seven-to-two vote in 2008. Palmer renewable energy also received a $225,000 loan from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative’s (MTC) Renewable Energy Trust around this time to finance pre-development expenses, according to information published by the MTC. The MTC is self-described as “the state’s development agency for renewable energy.”

Community opposition soon surfaced. At a Springfield Public Health Council meeting in November 2009, the Springfield Intruder reported that Michaelann Bewsee, of Stop Toxic Incineration, an opposition group to the plant, complained the public was not notified of the City Council hearings to approve the plant.

Another speaker noted that plant would be permitted to emit more carbon and mercury per unit of energy than the Mt. Tom coal burning plant, despite producing far less energy. It would be allowed to release four-times as much carbon as a gas-fired plant located in Westfield.

While a preliminary decision was to be made on Dec. 18, 2009, a moratorium was placed on incineration facilities for municipal solid waste on Dec. 11 of the same year by the Patrick administration.

Secretary Bowles had the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection suspend reviews of permits for operations incinerating construction and demolition materials “until a comprehensive assessment of the environmental impacts” of burning such waste could be completed,” said Bowles in a press release concerning the decision.

Stop Toxic Incineration and other groups and individuals continued to object to the project. In June 2010, 20 speakers at a public hearing with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental protection in Springfield spoke out against the plant, according to the Republican.

In August, a rally was organized by Stop Toxic Incineration members on the steps of Springfield City Hall, an attempt to convince the City Council to revoke the special permit for the plant’s construction. Stop Toxic Incineration collected nearly 1,000 postcards from local residents in support of this action, according to WWLP-22 News.

Individuals opposed to other wood-burning plants in the state said plants burning uncontaminated wood still generate particulate matter, which has been linked to asthma and carbon dioxide. The Concerned Citizens of Russell, a group opposed to a proposed wood-burning plant in the town of Russell, estimated the plant proposed in their town would generate 214 pounds per day of particulate matter and 1,734 pounds per day of carbon dioxide.

Melanie Muller can be reached at [email protected]