Thursday, March 17, 2011 • 5:06 PM Post a Comment

Will Health Council Take on Biomass Plant Question?

posted by Maureen Turner

On the heels of an opinion by the Springfield Law Department that the City Council does not have the legal authority to revoke a 2008 special permit it granted to a controversial wood-burning energy plant proposed for East Springfield—a move opponents of the project have urged the Council to make—comes the possibility that another group of city officials might take up the matter.

Stop Toxic Incineration in Springfield, a grassroots group of neighborhood, public health, environmental and social justice groups, maintains that the city’s Public Health Council has both the legal right and the responsibility to weigh in on the potential effects of the plant. The PHC, which advises the mayor on health issues in the city, has 15 members who include the city’s director of health and human services, Helen Caulton-Harris; physicians and other health care professionals; and members of the public.

The $150 million, 35-megawatt plant, proposed by Palmer Renewable Energy, would burn almost 1,200 tons of “green” wood chips a day. (An earlier version called for the burning of construction and demolition waste. The developers dropped that plan after strong concerns were raised about the potential release of toxins like arsenic and lead.) PRE describes the plant as a way to produce sustainable energy in an environmentally sound way. At the time of the 2008 special permit vote, developers told the Council the plant would create 50 full-time jobs and offered a number of perks to the city, called “host community benefits,” including $667,000 for local improvements, such as road paving and new street lights, and $25,000 for environmental programs in the city schools. The plant manager and PRE’s attorney have not returned calls from the Advocate.

Opponents of the plant worry that even the burning of green chips would seriously compromise the air quality in the greater Springfield area—an area that already suffers from poor air quality, as its disproportionately high asthma rates demonstrate.

Pat Markey, city solicitor under the Ryan administration and a former city councilor who has been working with STIS on a pro bono basis, today told the Advocate that under state law the PHC can review the project proposal, hold public hearings, hire experts for their opinions on its potential health effects—and, ultimately, deny or grant the project a site assignment. Markey also said he believes the city can charge the developers for the cost of the review.

At a meeting yesterday, STIS made its case to the Public Health Council. Today, Helen Caulton-Harris told the Advocate that the group will request that an independent counsel be hired to advise it on what it is legally authorized to do. The PHC would like an opinion from outside of the city Law Department, she said, not because its members lack confidence in City Solicitor Ed Pikula or his staff, but rather because there have been conflicting legal interpretations offered, and the PHC would like to have the advice of an independent entity.

While the PHC has been following the matter closely, Caulton-Harris said, because a health-impact assessment has not been done, the group cannot say what the effects of the project might be. “The Public Health Council, at this point, does not have all the information it needs to make an informed decision,” she said.

The plant proposal did not come before the PHC prior to the 2008 special permit vote. In 2009, health council members, in response to concerns raised by residents and health professionals, held public hearings on the project. Earlier this year, Tim Allen, who chaired the council at the time (he resigned that post after being elected city councilor for Ward 7), told the Advocate that the feedback from those hearings made it clear that the public wanted the project to undergo health and safety reviews before it moved forward—something, he said, that PHC members were assured would happen.

In 2008, to the great dismay of plant opponents, state officials waived a requirement that an environmental impact report on the project be conducted. Last year, Ian Bowles, then secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, reiterated that position. STIS has submitted a petition to Richard Sullivan, the former Westfield mayor who has since replaced Bowles in the EOEEA job, asking him to overturn that decision.

In a letter to Public Health Council members, Elizabeth Lederman of STIS wrote that the group is “the one, local body that can do what the state has decided not to do—truly assess what a new source of pollution will do to local residents suffering already from unacceptable air. The PHC is not bound, like the state, to use generically applied averages in assessing pollution and can concentrate on our local pollution and how it affects the local population.”

As a city councilor in 2008, Markey cast one of only two votes against granting PRE’s special permit. In announcing the STIS petition, he said, “The Public Health Council is the guardian of public health in Springfield. It is responsible for assessing whether the proposed incinerator is harmful to Springfield residents or dangerous to public health. We hope that it exercises the authority vested in it by state statute to consider the appropriateness of locating an incinerator in the heart of Springfield.”

The PRE plant does still need to get an air-quality permit from the Mass. Department of Environmental Protection. Earlier this month, DEP issued a draft permit for the project; the agency is now conducting a 30-day public comment period on the permit. That public comment period ends on April 9. On Tuesday, April 5, DEP will hold a hearing on the permit at 6:30 p.m. at Duggan Middle School.

Mayor Domenic Sarno has given what he calls “conditional support” to the PRE project. Earlier this year, in response to an inquiry from the Advocate, he issued this statement: “My conditional support has been and continues to be contingent on the proposed facility meeting all stringent federal, state and local environmental, health and safety requirements. My Administration will continue to give conditional support to the proposed biomass plant in the City of Springfield because it will assist with the creation of new jobs and tax revenues for the City. The City will continue to review any and all information regarding the proposed facility as the process moves forward and will evaluate the information accordingly.”

City Council President Jose Tosado, who is challenging Sarno in this fall’s mayoral race, voted for the 2008 special permit but has since changed his position, in light, he says, of new information that’s emerged about its potential effects. “We have so much more information available now that in good conscience, it’s not something I can support at this point,” Tosado told the Advocate in January.

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