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Proposed biomass plant could threaten health of the Valley

Date: 6/25/2008

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

WESTFIELD -- As Mother Earth continues to suffer from the burning of depleting fossil fuels and global warming has become a credible threat to 21st century life the need to find renewable forms of energy is becoming more critical.

"The proposed Russell Biomass power plant is a potential health threat to thousands of Massachusetts' residents and requires the full attention of all Massachusetts' citizens"

--Jeffrey Seyler, president and CEO of American Lung Association of New England (ALANE)

However, the Concerned Citizens of Russell, the American Lung Association of New England (ALANE), the Connecticut River Watershed Council Inc., and many other concerned citizens are questioning whether or not building a renewable energy plant, Russell Biomass, at the site of the former Westfield River Paper Company is the right answer.

Prior to the June 25 public hearing before the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) regarding the plant's Air Quality Permit application, the Concerned Citizens of Russell will be hosting a press conference to make their opposition of the plant clearly known. The press conference will take place in the Commuter Parking Lot at Westfield State College, one hour before the public hearing in Wilson Hall Auditorium at 7 p.m.

Representatives from various health and environmental organizations will be present to speak in opposition of the plant and the negative effects its emissions will have on the environment and human health, Jana Chicoine, spokesperson for the Concerned Citizens of Russell, noted.

Russell Biomass, the proposed 50-megawatt power plant would produce electricity for 30 percent of the homes in Hampden County by burning 500,000 tons of clean wood chips each year "equivalent to an oil-fired plant that burns 480,000 barrels of oil per year," according to the Russell Biomass LLC Web site.

Jeffrey Seyler, president and CEO of ALANE explained that even though the plant will be exercising renewable energy practices, the plant will produce concentrated levels of nitrogen oxide (NOx), "a key component of ground level ozone, or smog, and is a lung irritant."

"We're [ALANE] expressing our very strong concern about Russell Biomass, primarily because it [would be located] in an area that is already very polluted," Seyler said. "The health of area residents and those in surrounding communities could be adversely affected by thousands of pounds of air pollutants emitted into the air daily.

"In the report that Russell Biomass filed with the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act Office, Russell Biomass LLC projected that the power plant's NOx levels would exceed the Federal EPA Limit for New Source Review in an Ozone Non-Attainment Area," Seyler explained. "Under current regulations, the plant would be allowed to purchase additional credits to produce the extra NOx. The reported emissions also do not include the particulate matter produced by over 800 one-way diesel truck trips serving the plant [with wood chips] each week.

"The proposed Russell Biomass power plant is a potential health threat to thousands of Massachusetts' residents and required the full attention of all Massachusetts' citizens," he said.

Paul Epstein, M.D., M.P.H., also the associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School told Reminder Publications that the solution to combating Global Warming and maintaining human health is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, not find alternative means of producing the emissions.

He explained that carbon dioxide is the byproduct of "burning anything organic" such as wood chips, which in turn "contributes to climate change and produces a lot more pollen."

Epstein noted that energy plants also use diesel trucks to move supplies, which also contribute harmful pollutants.

"We have to find alternative ways to gain energy such as solar power or geothermal power . we need to reduce our use of electricity, rather than building more energy plants," he said.

Eva Tor, spokesperson for the Massachusetts DEP Western Regional Office, said the DEP is carefully examining all concerns, while evaluating numerous studies about the affects the plant will have on the Pioneer Valley, specifically NOx emissions.

"We do look at the ambient conditions and make sure that what is proposed will not exacerbate air pollution," she said. "We require that [Russell Biomass LLC] use the best available control technologies so that emissions are controlled."

Tor noted that in addition to Russell Biomass LLC's application for an Air Quality Permit, the company has also applied for a Wetlands Permit, a Water Discharge Permit, and a Water Management Act Permit.

Andrea Donlon, river steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council Inc., said the council is very concerned about the affects the plant will have on the Westfield River. She explained that the plant will be withdrawing significant amounts of water from the river to operate water-cooling technology. Donlon added that after use, the water will be "discharged back into the river at a heated temperature."

"We're not sure they've [Russell Biomass LLC] adequately demonstrated that [process] wouldn't adversely affect the fish that depend on cold water," she said.

"While we're not necessarily trying to stop it [the plant] we want to make sure the water withdrawals will not impair the Westfield River," she continued.

Tor said the DEP has conducted extensive research as well as reviewed research submitted by Russell Biomass LLC, and the DEP does not believe the plant's water withdrawals "will cause a detrimental impact to the river."

"We're very aware of those concerns and we have done an extensive analysis of [water] withdrawals dating back many years," Tor said. "We stipulate that if the river goes lower than the lowest day of the year the plant will have to cease operations."

She explained that the lowest single day of observation recorded a flow of 17.8 cubic feet per second but the withdrawal rate would be 7.7 percent.

Mary Booth, Ph.D., and a concerned citizen claimed that she found a "major error" in the Environmental Impact Report submitted by Russell Biomass. She explained that she found an error in the projected 7 Q 10 the lowest average seven-day flow data once every 10 years.

Booth said their 7 Q 10 showed a much higher number, allowing the plant to ensure that "there is plenty of water to dilute pollutants."

"I think that sound science should be used as the basis for policy," she said. "If we're building energy generating plants that are supposed to be alternative forms of energy wouldn't you like to know they were actually doing those things and not making other environmental problems worse?"

Phone calls to Russell Biomass were not returned by press time.