Last week, the Springfield City Council took a decisive step toward trying to stop a controversial wood-burning power plant proposed in the city. At a special meeting on Dec. 7, the Council voted, 9 to 2, to appeal the building permit issued last month to the would-be developers, Palmer Renewable Energy.
The decision came as no surprise; indeed, the previous week, a group of councilors had been poised to vote to appeal the permit but were stopped in their tracks by one of their colleagues. At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh—a plant supporter who has received numerous campaign donations from the developers—invoked Rule 20, a procedural strategy that allows any one councilor to postpone a vote until the city comptroller issues a report on its potential fiscal effects. A few days later, that report was released—an appeal, the comptroller found, could cost the city about $350—and the councilors were freed to take their vote.
They made short work of it; the meeting was adjourned in just a few minutes, with Council President Jose Tosado, at-large Councilor Tom Ashe, Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna, Ward 2's Michael Fenton, Ward 3's Melvin Edwards, Ward 4's Henry Twiggs, Ward 6's Amaad Rivera, Ward 7's Tim Allen and Ward 8's John Lysak all voting to appeal. Walsh and fellow at-large councilor Jimmy Ferrera cast the two dissenting votes. At-large Councilor Tim Rooke (a plant supporter) and Ward 5's Clodo Concepcion (who in the past has voted against the project) were both absent from the meeting.
The proposed 35-megawatt, $150 million power plant would burn almost 1,200 tons of wood chips a day, converting the energy produced into electricity, according to documents filed by PRE with the state. The project is opposed by a broad coalition of organizations, including neighborhood councils, social justice and environmental groups, and health organizations including the Mass. Medical Association, the American Lung Association and the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition. They contend that the plant would pose too great a health risk in a city that already has poor air quality and elevated asthma rates, among other public health problems.
Initially, the project was supported by the majority of the City Council, which in 2008 granted Palmer Renewable Energy a land use special permit to build the plant on Page Boulevard, in East Springfield. Only four of the councilors who voted in favor of that permit—Walsh, Ferrera, Tosado and Rooke—remain on the Council today; Tosado has since changed his position, saying that, in light of emerging information about potential risks, he no longer supports the project. Indeed, as public awareness, and then opposition, grew, the majority of councilors responded, and this May the Council voted, 10 to 2, to revoke that special permit. (Walsh and Rooke cast the two dissenting votes; Ferrera was absent from that meeting.)
Those councilors who voted for revocation were rather perturbed, then, when the city's code enforcement commissioner, Steven Desilets, issued PRE's building permit last month over their objections. Now the councilors will have a chance to contest Desilets' decision before the Zoning Board of Appeals.
"We just feel so invested in this process," Tosado said of the decision to appeal. "At the end of the day, the real question is: is this good for Springfield and its residents? I just feel a moral obligation to move forward and try to do anything we can to prevent it."
Michaelann Bewsee, a leader of Stop Toxic Incineration in Springfield, a grassroots group opposed to the plant, told the Advocate that she will also appeal the building permit before the ZBA, as will an abutter to the proposed site.
Frank Fitzgerald, Palmer Renewable Energy's attorney, has not responded to multiple requests for interviews by the Advocate, including one last week.
Rooke, who opposed the decision to appeal, believes the Council is overstepping its bounds, as it did when it revoked PRE's 2008 special permit this spring.
"The City Council's major role is in land use. And our role is to determine whether an appropriate piece of land is suited for the proposed business"—and in this case, the land is properly zoned for a power plant, he said.
In fact, Rooke argues, the Council made a bad move, strategically, when it revoked the permit, since the city could have used that permit to impose restrictions on the project. "Now we have no leverage with the developer at all," he said.
Does Rooke have any concerns about the public health risks that medical groups warn the plant poses? "I've always felt: let the experts decide if there's a problem or risk," said Rooke, who said he's satisfied with the reviews done by state environmental agencies, which have approved the project thus far.
Mayor Domenic Sarno has expressed similar sentiments, saying he supports the power plant as long as it meets state standards.
As the plant proposal has moved its way through the public approval process, David Callahan—manager of PRE as well as president of the family-owned Palmer Paving Corp.—and members of his family have given generously to elected officials and candidates.
On the City Council, the biggest beneficiary of the Callahans' largess has been Walsh, who so far this year has received $1,750 from members of the family, as well as $750 from Fitzgerald, PRE's attorney. Right behind her is Ferrera, who received $1,700 from the Callahans over the same time period, as well as $350 from Fitzgerald.
Sarno has received $4,275 from the Callahans since the fall of 2008, when the plant first came up for a special permit. Of that, $2,250 was donated on Nov. 7 of this year—one day before Sarno won re-election, defeating Tosado, a plant opponent. Sarno has also received $750 in donations from Fitzgerald this year.
Rooke has received $750 from members of the Callahan family this year. Those donations, he told the Advocate, did not come with any stated expectation that he would support the PRE plant. "The donations I received from the Callahan family don't have any sway to me," he said, adding that his position on the project is based on logical analysis. "I think there are people who donate to my campaign because they think I do my homework, study the issues and speak intelligently on them."
Tosado declined to speculate on why some of his colleagues support the power plant. "There are 13 people on the Council. If we all thought the same, there really wouldn't be the need for 13 people," he said. "I'm sure they have their reasons. They have to live with their consciences."
More Good News for Plant Opponents
Last week's vote by the Springfield City Council to appeal the building permit issued to Palmer Renewable Energy for its proposed power plant wasn't the only good news for activists eager to keep the project from being built. The day before that vote, they also received word that their appeal of an air quality permit granted the project by the Mass. Department of Environmental Protection will be heard,
On Dec. 6, DEP Commissioner Kenneth Kimmel ruled that the appellants—the Conservation Law Foundation, Arise for Social Justice, the Toxics Action Center and a group of residents—should be allowed to make their case, at a hearing expected to be held in March.
Kimmel's decision was a rejection of a recommendation issued the previous week by a DEP hearing officer, who found that the opponents did not have legal standing to challenge the permit. In a public statement, Kimmel wrote that "there is little judicial guidance on the issue [of whether residents can appeal an air permit] and there is a significant risk that whatever decision I reach on it will be the subject of judicial review, with an unpredictable outcome."
Therefore, he wrote, "In the interest of mitigating this uncertainty, affording petitioners an opportunity to be heard, ensuring a complete record and timely disposition of the case, and resolving the important question of whether the Department erred in any material respect in issuing the permit in this case, I direct the parties and the Presiding Officer to focus their attention upon resolving the merits of this appeal."
The groups that filed the appeal cheered Kimmel's decision, saying, in a press release, "We are pleased that the Commissioner did the right thing and we look forward to using this opportunity to show why the PRE air permit must not be granted, based on evidence demonstrating that the Power Plant's air emissions would further harm the health of residents already suffering from a disproportionate share of air pollution."
Frank Fitzgerald, Palmer Renewable Energy's attorney, did not return a call from the Advocate.
"We're feeling very relieved that we are where we are now," Lee Ann Warner, a member of Stop Toxic Incineration in Springfield, told the Advocate. And, she added, if the DEP ultimately rejects the appeal, the Conservation Law Foundation, which has been representing STIS pro bono, is committed to taking their case to Superior Court. "So it's not going to be over for a long time," Warner said.