Wednesday, March 16, 2011 • 2:04 PM Comments ()

Time to Weigh in on Wood-burning Plant

posted by Maureen Turner

Earlier this week, a coalition of public health, environmental and social justice groups from around the Valley launched a petition drive calling for a moratorium on new biomass energy plants in the state through the end of 2013. The group included opponents of proposed projects in Russell and Greenfield as well as Springfield, where Palmer Renewable Energy is moving to build a controversial wood-burning plant on Page Boulevard.

While the group collects signatures, the Springfield project continues to move forward. The state Department of Environmental Protection earlier this month issued a draft air quality permit for the plant; the public has until April 9 to submit public comments on the permit. A public hearing on the permit is scheduled for April 5, at 6:30 p.m., at Duggan Middle School.

Meanwhile, the city Law Department recently issued an opinion about whether the City Council—which issued a land-use special permit for the plant back in 2008—can legally rescind that permit, or require the developers to apply for a new permit, as a growing chorus of concerned residents and health experts have called for it to do. The answer, according to City Solicitor Ed Pikula? No.

In a letter to City Council President Jose Tosado, Pikula wrote that although the developers have changed the project since the permit was approved—dropping a highly controversial plan to burn construction and demolition waste, instead stating an intent to burn only “green” wood chips—they do not need to obtain a new special permit from the Council. (In fact, according to Pikula, the changes make the 2008 permit moot.) Rather, he wrote, the project requires the approval of the city Code Enforcement Commissioner. As it stands, he wrote, the project could be sited in an area zoned Industrial A without a special permit.

In addition, the project must satisfy city zoning ordinance air quality standards, and could be subject to a review by the city’s Public Health Commissioner, which has the legal right to review projects considered harmful to city residents.

“Based on the Solicitor’s legal opinion it would appear that the City Council has been removed from the process and that indeed [Palmer Renewable Energy] does not require a special permit,” Tosado—who voted for the 2008 permit but has since come to oppose the plant—wrote in a note to local reporters. “In fact, it would appear that the City itself is not involved in the process until (or if) the Department of Environmental Protection issues an Air Quality permit; in which case then the City’s Building Inspector would need to decide about issuing a building permit.

“At this point I would strongly urge the City to retain the services of an Air Quality expert to help prepare comments and testimony for submission during the hearing process,” added Tosado, echoing a recommendation made by Pikula is his opinion.

The grassroots Stop Toxic Incineration in Springfield has also asked Richard Sullivan, the newly appointed secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, to overturn a decision by his predecessor that the plant did not need to undergo a broad environmental impact review. Last year, Ian Bowles, then EOEEA’s secretary, said he was “confident that the project will meet all applicable air quality standards.”

Developers have said the $35 million project, which would burn almost 1,200 tons of wood chips a day, will be clean and will meet all relevant health and safety requirements.

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