Biomass project meeting draws a skeptical throng

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POWNAL -- About 100 people gathered for three hours on Saturday in the grandstand of the former Green Mountain Race Track to hear from developers of a proposed 29-megawatt biomass power generation and wood pellet manufacturing facility, and to ask questions of their own.

The developers, Beaver Wood Energy, LLC, a Delaware company with officers based in Maine, have said the facility will use low-quality wood from existing logging operations within a 50-mile radius to burn for electricity and to turn into wood pellets for use as heating fuel.

Many residents were skeptical of the developer’s claims in regards to the plant’s impacts on the environment and economy, while others wanted more information. A few people said they were in favor of the project but wished to see more hard data. Others were pointedly skeptical.

50 full-time on site

According to Beaver Wood, the plant will employ 50 full-time workers on site and 140 more elsewhere in support industries. The 26-month construction phase, they say, will create hundreds of temporary jobs. The company has also touted being a boon to the forest industry, as it will provide a market for wood that is not usable as timber, thus putting a value on forested land and offering its owners an alternative to development.

Thomas Emero, managing director of development and operations for Beaver Wood, said the Pownal facility would be the cleanest ever built in the United States. He said emissions will be well bellow state and federal safety standards and that the permitting as well as monitoring by the state is rigorous.

Beaver Wood is planning a similar plant in Fair Haven.

Emero said the project is unique in its combining of the biomass and pellet operations. He said fuel not usable as pellets gets burned in the biomass burner, while residual heat from the biomass is used to dry the pellets.

Air pollution was a large concern for many present. Tim Donnelly, of MacMillan & Donnelly, an environmental engineering consultation firm based in Falmouth, Maine, said the emissions levels of the proposed plant will be "spectacularly low."

He said the federal Clean Air Act, a law last amended in 1990, requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set Ambient Air Quality Standards.

Donnelly said that for the past two weeks he has been gathering and sorting data on the area’s weather patterns and has more work to do, but feels that emissions from the plant would be below state and federal limits. He said digital maps of the terrain and weather data collected in Rutland are used to create the models.

Some residents questioned how those models are created, fearing emissions from the stack will settle in the Pownal Valley and cause respiratory problems. The meeting became somewhat heated when Chris Matera, founder of Massachusetts Forest Watch, an anti-biomass organization, said Donnelly was misrepresenting data by using criteria from the EPA. He said those safety standards are being debated.

Another resident said the EPA’s standards are considered minimums and don’t take into account vulnerable populations such as asthmatics.

Donnelly said he took issue with having his honesty questioned and said once the data is complete it will be posted on Beaver Wood’s Website, as well as included in the application to the state. He said he works with regulations that are currently in place.

Wayne Goodman, a part-time resident of Pownal, said that by his calculations using figures Beaver Wood provided, emissions from the plant would increase the level of emissions already in the air by 15 percent.

Joe Tornabene, of Pownal, said the valley makes it difficult to predict the weather and may also distort predictions on noise levels from the facility and from trucks entering and exiting.

Walt Klinger, who said he was largely in favor of the project, agreed and said models based on data collected in Rutland cannot be relied on for Pownal.

The developers were asked if they were aware of a study released by Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences that was reported in the Boston Globe as asserting biomass plants pollute more that coal generation plants.

Eric Kingsley, vice president of Innovative Natural Resource Solutions, LLC, a forestry consulting firm in Maine, said the Manomet study modeled a type of biomass plant that doesn’t exist, namely one that burns nothing but pulp wood and not the tops of trees. He said the people who wrote the study later said the Globe article was inaccurate and issued a statement to that effect.

A few people disagreed with Kingsley, saying the study accounted for the burning of things aside from pulp wood. Kingsley said the report can be read at www.manomet.org. He directed people to look at page 110 of the report.

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Emero addressed concerns about the possible burning of construction debris. He said the Pownal facility will never burn anything but clean wood, and that state permits, the lease agreement with Southern Vermont Energy Park, the property’s owners, prohibit it. He said the plant isn’t designed to burn such things, as it would ruin equipment and require cost-prohibitive pollution controls.

Other people had questions about pathogens being passed through water vapor, as well as pollutants found in the sediment of the Hoosic River.

The developer’s engineers said the plant will primarily be cooled by river water, with 85 percent expected to evaporate and 15 percent to be discharged into a leach field, where concentrated minerals will be strained out and the water cooled before trickling back to the river.

Bill Bousquet, Beaver Wood managing director of engineering and operations, said no industrial pollutants such as PCBs, have been found in the water itself, only in the river sediment. Residents were concerned that would be a different story during high flow times when sediment is moved by the water.

The other issue townspeople brought up was a subject much discussed at a hearing on Thursday and reported on Saturday’s edition of the Banner.

That hearing, required by Act 199, was part of Beaver Wood’s application to use an existing well beneath the race track as a secondary source of water for cooling purposes, with the primary source being the Hoosic River.

Bousquet said the plant needs to pump between 130 and 530 gallons per minute for cooling. On average, the plant would use 330 gallons per minute and use the well 20 percent of the time.

Kim Kolakewski and others have disagreed with Beaver Wood’s estimation of how much water flows in the river and how robust the aquifer is. Kolakewski said there is a data collection station in Williamstown, Mass., that suggests that if the plant were operating now, it would have been able to draw from the river for 12 days between June and now.

Meddie Perry, senior hydrologist at Vanasse, Hangen, Brustlin Inc., said Thursday that additional tests will be done on the well, but the results of a 1994 test, when the well was pumped at 500 gallons per minute for seven days, make the company think it’s worth examining. He added that the flow rate at the Pownal site is estimated to be 60 percent higher than at the gauge in Williamstown.

He, along with Dennis Nealon, of the Agency of Natural Resources Water Supply Division, said people’s wells will be monitored during the testing and while the plant is in operation. Should tests show undue negative effect, a permit won’t be issued to use the well and the company will have to use a less-efficient method, or a deal will be worked out with any affected residence to supply owners with a water source.

The sustainability of the plant’s fuel source was also called into question. Many were worried that clear-cutting of forestland would occur.

Emero said the company’s studies have shown that within the 50-mile radius there is 3.2 million acres of timber, 70 percent of which is privately owned. He said 552,000 tons of saw logs and 1.2 million tons of pulp and firewood are removed per year. With that, he said 2.4 million tons of new growth is added per year. He said the plant will use about 330,000 tons of wood per year.

Should the plant close for whatever reason, part of getting the certificate of public good requires a decommissioning fund be set up, Emero said in answer to a question.

Between payroll and other expenses, Emero said the plant will spend about $31.5 million in the area and contribute $2.7 million to the state in taxes during construction and $2.3 million while in operation. To Pownal, it would pay $525,000, which if it were paying taxes today would equal about 45 percent of the town property tax, he said, adding that on a home valued at $161,000, it would save $281 per year.

Emero also addressed a question from Ray Shields, a Pownal resident, about an incident at the Livermore Falls, Maine, facility, a plant that Emero and Bousquet were involved in. Emero said it is his understanding that a man working for a third party contractor, hired to check the plant’s emission monitoring system, fell out of a "crow’s nest" built on the cooling tower. He said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined the project because the crow’s nest did not have a door over the access ladder, which the worker was believed to have fallen through.

Emero said the project’s cost is about $250 million. The project’s investors, he said, are not interested in funding a plant that will not be able to operate because of a lack of cooling water or one that gets shut down for permit violations.

Other consultants have said their reputations are at risk when they do various studies, and care is taken to make them accurate.

Pam Lyttle, a spokeswoman for Concerned Citizens of Pownal, said the group, which began as an informational organization, has decided that it’s against the Beaver Wood project and has scheduled an event for Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. at the Pownal Center Fire House, when Josh Schlossberg, an environmental researcher, will give a presentation on the negative aspects of such plants and successful efforts to block them.

Lyttle said the group has an e-mail list people can sign up for, concernedcitizensofpownal@hotmail.com as well as a Facebook.com page called Southern Vermont Against Biomass. The Facebook page contains links to anti-biomass Web sites.

More information on the project itself can be found at Beaver Wood’s site, www.beaverwoodenergy.com.

Reach Keith Whitcomb at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com


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