Biomass plan draws protest

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POWNAL -- Some two dozen area residents from Vermont and Massachusetts demonstrated Saturday in opposition to a proposed 29.5-megawatt biomass electricity generating and wood pellet manufacturing facility in Pownal. They stood at the northern gates of the former Green Mountain Race Track along Route 7, where Beaver Wood Energy, LLC, plans to locate the facility.

Environmental impact

The protest garnered honks from an appreciable share of passing motorists, as concerns over the facility continue to revolve around its environmental impact and economic consequences - or lack thereof - to the area.

SloaneTorres,from Williamstown, Mass., came with her son and husband to show their opposition to the project. Torres said that they had not been actively involved with either of the local citizens groups opposed to the project. "We rushed to educate ourselves" after the issue was first raised, she said, "and what we found was not positive."

The protest comes at a time when Beaver Wood has filed a partial application with the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) to begin construction, and residents in opposition have formed a single non-profit corporation and retained legal representation from Gerald R. Tarrant, of the Montpelier-based Tarrant, Gillies, Merriman, and Richardson law firm.

"I don’t want to have Pownal known as a factory town," said Jennie Dewar. She scoffed at claims that the plant would create local jobs or be beneficial for Pownal taxpayers - which she called a "smoke screen." Instead, Dewar said that Beaver Wood was rushing the permitting process in order to obtain federal stimulus funding, and not doing their due diligence in the process.

Dewar offered the alternative use of the race track as an events venue, which it has functioned intermittently as since the last greyhound raced in 1992.

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Beaver Wood has filed a partial certificate of public good with the PSB under Act 248, which governs power generation facilities. That application requests permission to begin construction so that the project can qualify for federal grant money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Beaver Wood is seeking $52.5 million of that grant money, but to qualify must begin construction on the project by the end of the year. Beaver Wood has stated that the initial construction - of truck scales and foundational supports - will be reversible if the final permit is not granted. The company has filed a similar application for an identical plant to be located in Fair Haven.

Thomas Emero, managing director of development and operations at Beaver Wood, has said that he believes the PSB would not be swayed one way or the other by any pre-approved work on the project. Pete Spencer, one Pownal resident at the protest Saturday, expressed skepticism that allowing construction now would have no influence on the PSB’s final decision. He also said that he had questions regarding the three-member board and the approval process.

Spencer said that he was encouraged by members of the Pownal Select Board requesting more information before taking a stand on the project. "I haven’t heard any [Pownal select board] member strongly in favor of it," Spencer said. He said that he wished they would take a stand, but that the issue wasn’t one to be rushed. The Select Board of Williamstown, Mass. has stated their opposition to the project.

"Vermont starts here," Spencer said, calling Pownal a gateway to Vermont - the view of which would be spoiled by the biomass facility and proposed 180 foot chimney. According to Beaver Wood’s partial application, the facility will be difficult to pick out due to the rolling topography of the area. But the main chimney and resulting water vapor plume, visible some 20 percent of the time and reaching up to 300 feet above ground level - higher during winter - will be visible along stretches of Routes 7 and 346, and from certain vantage points throughout Pownal.

Beaver Wood’s application states that the view of the complex does not rise to the level of undue because it will not "overly offend the sensibilities of the average person." The proposed chimney demonstrably offended the sensibilities of Saturday’s protestors, with many signs referencing that most conspicuous part of the facility.

"A picture tells a thousand words," said Janet Halcomb, pointing to a sign with a crossed-out smokestack carried by a child. "That smokestack is not the Vermont I grew up in," she said.

Halcomb, a resident of Williamstown, Mass., said that she was raised in Vermont near the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon. Halcomb cited the environmental impact of the proposed biomass plant in her opposition, and the inefficiencies in burning wood to produce electricity. She expressed concern regarding the amount of wood the facility could use through the course of its daily operations.

The partial permit filed by Beaver Wood is publicly available online, on the PSB and Beaver Wood websites, and at the Pownal town offices. The application contains testimony as to the proposed facility’s impact on air quality, water supply, area aesthetics, woodlands, and the local economy. State Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal/Woodford, has been reported saying that he would like the PSB to conduct independent evaluations of that data, which is submitted on behalf of Beaver Wood by hired consultants.


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