Opponents of a proposed wood-burning power plant in Springfield, Massachusetts are weighing their options now that the city’s top health official has opted not to hold a site assignment hearing on the project.
Local environmental activists who have battled for almost a decade against plans to build a biomass power plant in East Springfield plan to consult with attorneys this week about what options may be left now that Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris has chosen not to initiate a proceeding to determine if the plant’s location would pose a danger to the public health.
Jesse Lederman, an environmental organizer with Arise for Social Justice, called the decision “startling.”
"So at this time we are just reviewing all our options. We are hopeful that at some point the commissioner could decide to move forward with a site assignment hearing and we are going to look for legal avenues to urge that," said Lederman.
After a series of defeats with state environmental regulators and in the courts, project opponents turned to the city’s Public Health Council arguing it had the power to veto the location of the plant if a hearing determined it could expose people to an elevated risk of respiratory problems.
Palmer Renewable Energy, the plant’s developer, insisted the Public Health Council had no jurisdiction over the project and threatened to sue the city if the local health board got involved.
Nonetheless, the council voted at a meeting in June to recommend a site assignment hearing. But, Caulton-Harris said the vote is not binding.
In a written decision rejecting the site assignment hearing, she said plant opponents had failed to convince her that their concerns had not already been addressed by the permitting process conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP issued the plant an air permit.
Lederman said the plant opponents do not believe the MassDEP standards are strict enough to protect people who live in a region that already has one of the highest asthma rates in the state.
"Until now we have only asked the commissioner to move forward with a hearing so that those studies can be done to really understand the impact on public health," said Lederman.
Lederman said a majority of the city’s neighborhood councils have gone on record opposed to the project and the city council has voted several times to record its opposition, according to council Vice President Orlando Ramos.
" It should be clear at this point that the city of Springfield just does not want a biomass incinerator," said Ramos.
Earlier this year, in urging the council to approve a resolution calling on the health board to hold a site assignment hearing, Ramos said he was unconcerned about the threats from the plant’s developer to sue the city if the project is held up.
" I'm more concerned about the public health and safety of our residents. I am concerned about the asthma rates in the city of Springfield. I'm concerned about the air quality in the city of Springfield," said Ramos.
The Massachusetts Toxics Action Center and the Conservation Law Foundation of Massachusetts also oppose the project. Veronica Eady, Vice President of the Consevation Law Foundation, said a wood-burning power plant would have an impact well beyond Springfield.
"This going to be a significant source of greenhouse gases," warned Eady. " It is time to put on the brakes and take a look at how this facility is going to impact the community and Massachusetts, so we can meet our greenhouse gas reduction goals."
The Conservation Law Foundation has sued the MassDEP over its decision to issue an air permit for the proposed plant.