Next move to stop biomass project unclear
Date: 12/16/2010News AnalysisDec. 15, 2010
By G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD For many people throughout the Connecticut River Valley who have opposed the proposed biomass facility on Page Boulevard, Monday night's City Council meeting was to be the beginning of a process of revoking the special permit the city gave to Palmer Renewable Energy in 2008.
Previous meetings on the plant over the past two years originally designed to burn construction and demolition waste to generate electricity have drawn people from Chicopee, West Springfield, Westfield, East Longmeadow and Longmeadow as well as residents in communities in Hampshire County to protest the increased amount of air pollution not just from the burning of the fuel but from the increased truck traffic bringing hundreds of tons of material to the plant six days a week.
The process to stop the plan at the local level is now in doubt as City Solicitor Edward Pikula briefed councilors in executive session about his legal opinion concerning what they can do.
Pikula was asked by City Councilor Tim Rooke to tell the Council and the standing room only audience of opponents and proponents about the Council's legal boundaries.
Pikula declined and explained that since there was a possibility for litigation from the Council's actions he would rather speak to the councilors in private. He said it was the Council's decision to waive the privacy, but there was no movement to do so.
Frank Fitzgerald, the attorney for PRE, told Reminder Publications, he didn't want to speak about any legal action against the city if the special permit was revoked. He explained that PRE wants to work with the city, but "there is a lot at stake."
"We really believe it's safe," he said of the plant.
The renewed controversy around the plant came from PRE's decision to switch from construction and demolition waste to green wood chips and that out-going Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles had recently decided an environmental impact study for the new plan was not necessary.
Opponents and City Councilors John Lysak, Michael Fenton, Tim Allen and Melvin Edwards met with the press Dec. 9 to explain that because PRE had filed a 388-page document with state officials requesting the change of fuel, the councilor wanted to discover whether or not the original special permit still applied.
If it didn't, the councilors believed there could be a way to stop the project.
"This is an issue second to none," Fenton said last week.
Allen noted that a quarter of the students in the city have asthma and additional pollution posed a serious health hazard.
Allen also read from a letter sent to city officials by the presidents of Western New England College, Springfield College and American International College opposing the facility.
In the packed City Council chambers Monday night, the mood of the audience was largely for the opponents. Council President Jose Tosado explained no vote was being taken that night and the hearing was strictly informational.
Fitzgerald gave a brief history of the project stressing the developers were in compliance with the special permit and with state regulations regarding the project.
Following Fitzgerald were several union representatives who spoke on the importance for employment the construction of the facility represented.
Dan D'Alma, the president of the Pioneer Valley Building Trades Council, noted the state is known national for its strict environment laws and enforcement. He said that Cooley-Dickinson Hospital in Northampton generates electricity through the burning of wood chips.
"I think that pretty sound, "he said. "If a hospital is willing to do this it's not as bad as you people are letting on to be."
While the line of speakers in line to speak in support of the plant was short, the line for the opponents was much longer.
Michaelann Bewsee, a long-time opponent to the plant, told the councilors, "You are really the best hope . There are so many better ways to go [than the PRE plant.]"
Former City Councilor Patrick Markey said, "The Council was sold a bill of goods," referring to the issuing of the special permit.
"If this project is so great, why not put it in Wellesley? Why not in Lexington?" Markey asked.
In rebuttal, Dale Raczynski of Epilson Associates, the environmental consulting firm from Maynard working for PRE, said the plant would be adding more pollution controls as requested by the state.
He said it would be "the cleanest plant of this type in the country."
Raczynski maintained the fuel source scrap wood harvested by various tree services is plentiful enough to keep the facility working.
Sylvia Brody of the Toxic Action Center said the pollution from the plant would bring the local levels to the highest point allowed by law. She noted there would be no room for any additional emissions that might come from any new manufacturing in the region facilities that would create jobs.