Approximately 100 people crowded into the conference room and adjoining hallways on the third floor of Town Hall Wednesday night to learn about the possible health and environmental impacts of a 29.5-megawatt biomass plant on Route 7 in Pownal, Vt.
"Even if the proposed development is working at the optimal level of federal emissions standards, the air quality in this particular valley will be changed for the worse," Laylah Ali, a member of Concerned Citizens of Williamstown, said Wednesday.
Ali was joined by Rick Morgenthal, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Pownal, in updating people about the status of the project and outlining questions that still need answers from developer Beaver Wood Energy LLC. "What you have to understand about this is the biomass industry plays the green card," Morgenthal said. "It's not sustainable or renewable ultimately."
He said with Beaver Wood planning to begin the project before the end of the year, all concerned citizens should be asking to slow the project down so the impact of the plant on the area can be further studied. "Poor planning on their part shouldn't constitute an emergency on our part. We want facts," he said.
Resident Peggy Diggs presented the answers Beaver Wood's attorney gave earlier this month in response to questions from some Pownal residents. She said the company plans to get its materials within a 50-mile radius of the plant and is aiming for 75 percent of that material to be from tree tops and brush left over from logging operations.
In addition, the company will use logs not suitable for lumber to make wood pellets, she said. She said when asked why the project was moving quickly, Beaver Wood's lawyer said it wanted to take advantage of the federal energy tax credit and federal stimulus funding, which expires at the end of the year.
Still, Diggs is concerned about the project's possible impact on Williamstown, Pownal and the region. "I worry that being out-of-state residents, any fight from us on this is seen as intervention," she said.
Resident Sarah Gardner said some biomass plants burn very clean, and asked if anyone knew the models projecting what kinds and how much pollutants would be emitted from the Pownal facility. Ali said there are existing air quality permits for biomass plants in Vermont showing what they burn and the amount. "You can see things are in the tons," she said.
A man said he had recently received an e-mail Middlebury College in Vermont touting its biomass plant. He said Middlebury is known as one of the top five to 10 schools that are most environmentally responsible. "If they're building a plant on campus, why is this plant a bad idea?" he said.
Ali said Middlebury needs two to three truckloads of forest materials per day to operate its biomass plant, and the Pownal plant would need 80 truckloads of material. "It would mean the wood burned by 50 percent of homes in Vermont would be burned here," Morgenthal said.
Wendy Penner, chairwoman of the Williamstown COOL (Carbon Dioxide Lowering) Committee, said it's good people are coming together to share their concerns about having a biomass plant nearby, but as consumers of electricity, that energy comes from somewhere -- primarily coal plants in the Midwest. "We have to take responsibility for our energy use," she said.