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New England News

Health Board Hearing Sought On Biomass Plant

A rendering of the proposed biomass power plant in an industrial section of East Springfield.
Palmer Renewable Energy
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Opponents of a planned wood-burning power plant in Springfield, Massachusetts are turning to a local board that deals with public health issues in what may be a last ditch attempt to stop the construction of the biomass plant.

Nearly two dozen individuals and organizations have petitioned the Springfield Public Health Council to conduct a public hearing on the siting of  the 35-megawatt power plant that Palmer Renewable Energy wants to build on the city’s east side.

One of the petitioners, Michaelann Bewsee, of Arise for Social Justice, explained they are calling for the Public Health Council to schedule a site assignment hearing regarding the suitability of the proposed location for the plant.  Bewsee, and other activists, contend the level of air pollution from the plant threatens the health of people living throughout the lower Pioneer Valley.

" It will be not only greenhouse gas emissions, but mercury, lead, heavy metals that accumulate in trees that will be sent into the air," said Bewsee. " We can't afford this."

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection issued an air permit for the project in 2011 after a series of contentious public hearings.  Two state courts have directed the city to issue a building permit for the plant.

Bewsee and the other plant opponents have not been deterred by the setbacks.

" We remain committed," she said.  " We still have some cards to play and remain committed to fighting it as far as we can."

Groups petitioning the local health board include the Conservation Law Foundation, Stop Toxic Incineration in Springfield, Greenfield Concerned Citizens, and Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition. The petition is on the agenda for the health council’s October 21st meeting.

How much authority the Public Health Council has in this case is unclear.  Jesse Lederman, a plant opponent who is also a candidate for Springfield City Council this year, believes the local board could at the very least impose conditions on the plant operators to mitigate harmful impacts.

" We understand from some legal counsel that there are state laws that empower public health councils to deem some sites inappropriate for certain uses  if there is a negative impact on the public health," he said.

Lederman has made the plant an issue in his run for one of five at-large seats on the council, pointing out that some of the incumbent councilors voted in 2008 to approve a special permit for the project.

" This project should have been stopped in 2008. There should have been more review and more scrutiny by our local elected officials," he said.

The current council is appealing the latest court order reinstating the building permit for the project.  Springfield City Council President Mike Fenton said if the appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court fails, the plant will likely be built.

" We understand the odds are against us, but we are doing everything we can to stop this project," Fenton said after the council voted 7-0 last month to file an appeal.

Fenton said a majority of the councilors view their opposition to the project as a “moral imperative.”

Attorney Patrick Markey, a former Springfield city councilor, volunteered to represent the city council in the legal battle over the biomass plant for no charge. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno refused to authorize funds for the council to pursue the appeals.

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