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Biomass or 'biomess'?

Russell Selectman Ronald Merritt testified before the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (pictured above) at Westfield State College last week. Merritt stated his support for the construction of the Russell Biomass power plant, which he said will bring much-needed jobs and revenue to the area. Reminder Publications photo by Katelyn Gendron
By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

WESTFIELD The final round of lengthy testimony before the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) regarding the proposed controversial Russell Biomass power plant took place at Westfield State College last week.

Three members of Westfield and Russell town governments presented their sworn testimony of support or opposition for the 50-megawatt power plant. Westfield City Councilor Mary O'Connell, Russell Selectman Ronald Merritt and Russell Assessor Theodore Gloss provided their testimonies as well as responses to intense questioning by the DPU, Russell Biomass, LLC, and six interveners over the course of several hours.

The outcome of these proceedings will determine whether Russell Biomass, LLC, can construct their plant at the site of the former Westfield River Paper Company. The DPU must decide whether or not to exempt the company from zoning bylaws of Westfield, Russell and Montgomery that prohibit the structure to be built higher than 35 feet. The proposed facility would be approximately 135 feet high.

Merritt was first to testify before the DPU, where he read into record his support on behalf of himself and the Russell Board of Selectmen for the biomass plant. Merritt expressed his support for the facility, as it will make this area and the nation less dependent on foreign fuels. Russell Biomass, LLC, proposes that it will provide energy for 30 percent of the homes in Hampden County, according to the plant's Web site. Their product will be produced through the annual burning of 500,000 tons of clean wood fuel.

Merritt explained that the plant will burn only virgin wood and the plant will also provide much-needed jobs and tax revenues for the area.

He also indicated that the board's only concern for the plant was the high volume of truck traffic on Main Street. He explained that the plant has proposed 80 trucks to travel to and from the plant Monday through Friday and 120 trucks on peak days. Merritt said the board has requested that Russell Biomass limit that activity by 25 percent on peak days as the volume is too great for the town to monitor. He proposed a $1,000 fine if the peak number is violated.

Merritt said the concern over truck traffic is not a safety issue for the town or its neighbors, it's "a quality of life issue" in terms of the residents' exposure to diesel fumes and traffic congestion.

Ruth Kennedy, one of over 30 interveners, and one of six interveners at the hearing, said she disagrees with Merritt and believes that the biomass plant is both a health and safety issue. Suffering from chronic bronchitis, Kennedy said she will be able to see the plant from her doorstep and the truck fumes and smoke stack emissions will cause her condition to worsen.

Kennedy said she believes the hearings have been conducted with positive progress on behalf of Russell citizens. "We've disputed and discredited every witness Russell Biomass has put forward [before the DPU]," she said.

Gloss's testimony was far less invasive, lasting only half an hour. He received questioning from the interveners, who inquired about the possible depreciation of property values with the construction of the plant. Gloss said he was unable to conclude whether or not home values in the area would lessen because the plant has not yet been constructed.

O'Connell, former owner and co-founder of Lawry Freight System -- a trucking company -- said her experience in the trucking business and its contracts with Westfield River Paper Company provided her with insight into the increased volume of truck traffic on Westfield roads.

O'Connell explained she is strongly opposed to the construction of Russell Biomass as their 80-120 trucks will have to travel through Westfield, which cannot handle any increased motor vehicle volume. She said she has supplied those at the hearing with several traffic studies, which verify her statements of how increased volume will create possible gridlock conditions and a greater number of accidents.

William Hull, one of five development partners of Russell Biomass, said he believes the hearings are proceeding with definite progress. He said he was grateful for Merritt's support of the plant and that the DPU must look carefully at the testimony before making their decision. Hull explained that he believes the testimonies were primarily a series of opinions without educated studies to back them up.

A decision for or against the exemption is likely to be rendered within the next year or more.