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Activists Continue 10-Year Fight Over Biomass Project

Anti-biomass rally
Paul Tuthill

Environmental activists fear a climate bill in the Massachusetts legislature will breathe new life into a long-proposed biomass power plant in Springfield.

The House version of a climate bill currently in a conference committee on Beacon Hill would define commercial grade wood-burning biomass as non-carbon emitting sources of energy. Unless that language is taken out, a long-stalled biomass power plant in Springfield could get financing, according to Springfield City Councilor Jesse Lederman.

"There should not be any green energy subsidy given to these types of incinerators," said Lederman.

Lederman, who chairs the council’s Sustainability and Environment Committee recently forwarded to the co-chairs of the legislative conference committee an online petition with over 2,500 signatures opposing state incentives for biomass energy projects.   Ten Springfield City Councilors also signed a letter urging the state legislature to eliminate the language in the climate bill they say would provide a boost to the controversial local project.

Palmer Renewable Energy obtained state and local permits about a decade ago to build a $150 million 35-megawatt wood-to-energy plant on an industrial site off Page Blvd. in East Springfield. Opponents of the project managed to hold up construction with regulatory and court challenges.

In 2015, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts ruled the project could move forward.  In 2018, the developer announced plans to hold a “groundbreaking” the following the year, but it did not take place. The current status of the project could not be ascertained.

Lederman said the council is doing a “deep evaluation” to determine if the permits issued so long ago are still valid.

In a demonstration of continued opposition to the plant, about 75 people rallied earlier this month in front of Springfield City Hall.

They held signs and chanted " We will, we will block you." "We will, we will stop you."

"This event is about the zombie project," said Verne McArthur of the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition.  "This biomass plant that Palmer Renewable wants to build and keeps pulling political string to get loopholes to do do it.  We've been fighting it for ten years and they're trying to come back.

McArthur  urged people to contact their state legislators to oppose clean energy subsidies for commercial biomass projects.

" Springfield is the only place at this point they are talking about a new biomass plant, but if it gets in here it would open the field for others in Massachusetts," said McArthur.

He said the plant will cause air pollution, not just from the wood that would be burned but also from the trucks that would drive to and from the site daily.

Tanisha Arena of Arise for Social Justice said the power plant would have a devastating effect on a population with some of the highest rates of respiratory illness in the country.

"To put a biomass in an environmental justice community with Black and brown people  that is environmental racism," said Arena.

The developers have long stressed the proposed plant meets all current government air quality standards.  They’ve also touted the hundreds of construction and permanent jobs that would result from the project.

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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