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Activists, Elected Officials Press For Health Board Hearing On Biomass Project


Opponents of a proposed wood-burning power plant in Springfield, Massachusetts are trying to turn up the pressure on the city’s Public Health Council to hold a hearing on the project. Whatever the local health board decides to do it could trigger a lawsuit.

Encouraged by local environmental and social justice activists, the Springfield City Council approved on a voice vote a resolution calling on the Public Health Council to hold a site assignment hearing on the project proposed by Palmer Renewable Energy.

Councilor Orlando Ramos, the resolution’s sponsor, said he is not concerned by threats from the plant’s developer to sue if the local health board gets involved.

" I am more concerned about the public health and safety of our residents," he said. " I am concerned about the asthma rate in the city of Springfield. I am concerned about the air quality in the city of Springfield."

Michaelann Bewsee, director of Arise for Social Justice and a founder of the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition, said activists have fought to block construction of the biomass energy plant for eight years and are not giving up.

" It has been very clear that our community does not want a biomass incinerator and we are glad to have the support of a majority of the city council anyway," she said.

Following a series of defeats with state environmental regulators and in the courts, the project opponents have now turned to the local health board.  

" We believe the Public Health Council not only has the right, but also the responsibility, to hold a site assignment hearing to determine if this incinerator is in the right place and wont' damage public health in any way," said Bewsee.

Palmer Renewable Energy, in a statement, said “There is simply no legal or factual basis for the Public Health Council to pursue a site assignment.”  The statement said the developer had met every legal and environmental requirement to begin construction of the plant at an industrial site in east Springfield.

The Public Health Council held a public hearing about the project in January, but has yet to announce a decision on whether to convene a formal site assignment process.  The council met in a closed session in May to discuss potential litigation that could result from the biomass project review. The agenda for the June 15th meeting includes another executive session.         

Opponents continue to publicly press the council to make a decision. At a rally near the site of the proposed plant on May 26th, Jesse Lederman, the Environmental Organizer with Arise for Social Justice, said activists might sue the council if does not hold a site assignment hearing.

At a June 6 press conference in Springfield, Claire Miller, Massachusetts Director of the Toxics Action Center, and Veronica Eady, Vice President of the Conservation Law Foundation of Massachusetts, called on the health council to get involved.

Eady said the proposed wood-burning power plant would have an impact well beyond Springfield.

" This is going to be a significant source of greenhouse gases," said Eady. " So, it is time to put on the brakes. Take a look at this facility to see how it is going to affect the community,and see how it is going to impact Massachusetts so we can meet our Global Warming Solutions Act greenhouse gas reduction goals."

The Conservation Law Foundation has sued the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection over its decision to issue an air permit for the proposed plant.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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