Scrutiny persists over biomass plant in Springfield

  • AP PHOTO AP PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/31/2020 10:47:54 AM
Modified: 12/31/2020 10:47:44 AM

SPRINGFIELD — As the year comes to an end, environmental and racial justice advocates are sounding the alarm about legislation and regulations that are set to benefit a proposed wood-burning power plant in Springfield.

The energy plant, which developer Palmer Renewable Energy secured a permit for a decade ago, has long been the subject of controversy. Opponents have pointed to research that shows burning “biomass” — wood chips or pellets made from trees and cleared brush — results in significant greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants harmful to human health. The project is located in Springfield, which the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America has named the asthma capital of the country.

However, as part of a package of climate legislation, the state House of Representatives has included language that calls biomass a “non-carbon emitting energy” source, allowing municipal electric utilities to purchase energy derived from biomass under a new greenhouse gas emission standard.

In addition to that legislative language, the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker has put forward regulations that would allow the Palmer plant to receive renewable energy credits under the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards.

Those developments have opponents of the project pushing for action ahead of the end of the Legislature’s session, which has been extended until Jan. 5 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Legislature also has the ability to intervene and initiate a public stakeholder process for the regulations.

“We’ve been fighting this for over a decade,” state Senator-elect Adam Gómez, D-Springfield, said on Monday. “And for those who are benefitting through this incentivized program that they’re trying to create, it’s really a concern because I don’t think they’re looking out for the benefit of our people here in western Massachusetts.”

Indeed, much of the electricity generated by the project appears to be headed to the eastern part of the state. In a power purchase agreement the Pelham-based Partnership for Policy Integrity, or PFPI, obtained via a public records request, Palmer Renewable Energy notes that it has signed contracts with eight municipal light plants in Braintree, Danvers, Groveland, Merrimac, Middleton, Morwood, Taunton and Reading.

Victor Gatto, Palmer’s founder, did not respond to several requests for comment.

The power plant, meanwhile, will be located in a working-class neighborhood in a city where a large number of residents identify as Black or Hispanic, and which the American Lung Association ranked 194th out of 204 metropolitan areas for annual particle pollution. Partnership for Policy Integrity estimates that the Palmer plant will produce some 200 tons of fine particulate matter and other harmful air pollutants per year.

That fine particulate matter is of particular concern during the pandemic. A recent Harvard University study found that high exposure to the pollutant is associated with higher death rates from COVID-19.

“What they’re getting is a cheap and easy way to claim they’re meeting their clean energy goals, but that’s done by turning a blind eye to the science and by turning Springfield into a sacrifice zone,” said Laura Haight, the Partnership for Policy Institute’s executive director.

Locating the plant in Hampden County would follow a trend of placing the region’s largest polluters in the county, which also has the highest percentage of Hispanic residents of the state’s 14 counties and third-largest percentage of African-American residents. A Gazette analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data in 2019 showed that of the top 20 greenhouse gas polluters in western Massachusetts, 11 are in Hampden County. And most of those facilities — like power plants and landfills — benefit residents beyond the borders of Hampden County. 

Although it is currently difficult to make a biomass power plant that produces only electricity profitable, Haight and others say the language in the House bill and the new regulations would soon change that picture. She estimated that the state’s new regulations alone would net the facility $13 million to $15 million annually.

“To do this over the winter holidays, in the darkest nights of the pandemic,” Haight said. “It’s just appalling.”

The plant has drawn opposition from local activists, as well as many from the region and elected officials. Gómez and his colleagues on the Springfield City Council passed a resolution last week condemning the subsidies for biomass plants, and Attorney General Maura Healey called on the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy to initiate a stakeholder process to hear from the public.

Policies that subsidize wood burning … move the Commonwealth in the wrong direction,” Healey said of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, or DOER, regulations. “Our forests are one of our first lines of defense against climate change because of their ability to sequester carbon. Yet DOER’s new regulations threaten their integrity and will result in increased greenhouse gas emissions almost certainly in the short term—when we need to be drastically reducing emissions—and most likely over the longer term, notwithstanding the flawed analyses accompanying DOER’s Draft Regulations.”

U.S. Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren also voiced concerns. In a Dec. 24 letter to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, they called on the agency to consider suspending its conditional approval for the Palmer plant while the administration of President-elect Joe Biden reviews and potentially issues new regulations for biomass and the climate. The two also called on MassDEP to conduct a new air quality review for the project.

In their letter, the senators note that one in five children in Springfield have asthma, adding that the Palmer plant would exacerbate that serious problem. They also note that communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 in Massachusetts, and that poor air quality has been linked with higher mortality from the coronavirus disease.

“Furthermore, the body of scientific evidence on climate change and biomass energy has grown significantly since MassDEP originally issued the Conditional Approval,” they said. “A wood-burning power plant has a carbon dioxide emissions rate that is approximately fifty percent higher than that of a coal-fired power plant ... Scientific studies, including one commissioned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, have found that it takes decades of forest regeneration to offset these emissions. The proposed Springfield biomass plant would therefore undermine Massachusetts’ climate, environmental justice, and clean energy goals.”

For Gómez, the fight against the plant is a fight for racial and environmental justice. He noted that his own children and own family members suffer from lung complications. But he also said pollution generated by the plant is a regional issue, impacting western Massachusetts as a whole.

“This isn’t just a Springfield issue, this is a western Massachusetts issue,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2020 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy