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Air quality permit may block biomass

Date: 1/4/2011

Jan. 3, 2011

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD — Two City Councilors feel there is still a way to stop the biomass plant proposed to be built on Page Boulevard by Palmer Renewable Energy (PRE).

Councilors Timothy Allen and Michael Fenton both believe the City Council has the ability, through the city's permitting process, to take action to stop the construction.

"The ball seems to be in our court more than anyone else's," Allen told Reminder Publications.

One state permit for air quality still needs to be issued before the biomass plant can move forward.

Fenton and Allen joined Helen R. Caulton Harris, the director of Springfield's Division of Health and Human Services, at a meeting conducted Dec. 16 with state health officials in Boston.

In a letter to Mayor Domenic Sarno, Caulton Harris wrote, "The State Department of Public Health (DPH) has no legal standing since the project has been approved by Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. The State Department of Public Health has no authority to overturn a decision made by another state agency. DPH can focus on mitigation of factors that might have an impact. If the project moves forward, DPH will guide the process working with local agencies and organizations (including local public health) to direct the best use of the anticipated two million dollars."

She explained, "Finally, the last permit that is necessary is the air quality permit. The air quality permit will include a public comment period. The air quality permit could involve terms and conditions based on the criteria of the State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). If an air quality permit is not issued, the project cannot go forward."

Fenton said, "The state, from an air quality standpoint, has exhausted all options except for [this] air quality permit."

Fenton said that one reason for the meeting with health officials in Boston was to "hold their feet to the fire ... why [these] guys haven't done anything."

Although Fenton admitted the meeting discouraged him and Allen, neither left the meeting thinking they could no nothing to prevent the project from happening.

Fenton noted that state law dictated that any project that was granted a special permit by a municipality that hadn't begun construction within two years would be voided. This law was overturned by a special act approved by the Legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick that extended all special permits by two years.

Allen is working on setting up a meeting with incoming Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Richard Sullivan to discuss the project.

He added he intends to "keep pursuing people at the state level."

Opponents of the PRE project believe the city is within legal boundaries to require a new special permit for the biomass plant because it has changed its fuel source from construction and demotion waste to green wood chips.

Susan Reid, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, sent a letter on Dec. 27 to City Solicitor Edward Pikula with her interpretation of the argument made by PRE attorneys that a special permit isn't even needed for the project.

In her letter, Reid argued a special permit is needed and, now that changes have been made, a new special permit is needed for the amended plans for the facility. PRE has threatened to sue the city if the special permit is revoked and the project stalled.

"These are differences that even PRE has admitted are material," Reid wrote.

Reid wrote, "The city unquestionably has the right to revoke a special permit for just cause, and Massachusetts law prohibits any claim for damages that is based upon the issuance, denial, suspension or revocation of any permit, license, certificate, approval, order or similar authorization. G.L. c. 258, 10(e)."

She proposed that the City Council revoke the permit but allow PRE to submit plans for the new project. If the city holds new hearings and begins a new permitting process, that action should prevent a lawsuit.

Michaelann Bewsee of Stop Toxic Incineration in Springfield (STIS) said, "The members of STIS, the growing number of Springfield residents following this project, area colleges, and numerous health and medical related organizations have expressed their urgent desire for the City Council to start a new permit process. We all will be eagerly awaiting the City Council's response to the legal opinion from the senior attorney with an organization working tirelessly on our behalf."

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