Baker pulls plug on Springfield biomass power plant
DEP cites construction delay, health and environmental impacts
THE BAKER ADMINISTRATION pulled the plug on a controversial biomass power plant in Springfield on Friday amid growing pushback from opponents who viewed the burning of wood to produce electricity as a threat to public health and the environment.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection sent a letter to Palmer Renewable Energy telling the company it was revoking its 2012 air plan approval for the 35-megawatt power plant because construction had not commenced within two years of the granting of the permit. The letter also cited “more recent health-related information and the heightened focus on environmental and health impacts on environment justice populations from sources of pollution during the intervening years.”
There was no explanation in the letter, signed by Michael Gorski, regional director of DEP’s western regional office, for why the agency waited roughly seven years after the two-year deadline was up before revoking the permit.
There also was no mention in the letter that Palmer Renewable Energy had been waiting for final approval of new regulations developed by the Baker administration that would have made the biomass plant eligible for renewable energy subsidies from utility ratepayers. It’s unclear whether those regulations, which were considered key to the financial viability of the project, are now being scrapped.
Palmer Renewable Energy can challenge the DEP’s decision, but Kathleen Theoharides, the governor’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, issued a statement suggesting the company would face a very high bar.
“As part of the Baker-Polito administration’s commitment to environmental justice and air quality, in any new permit process MassDEP would require Palmer Renewable Energy to demonstrate the proper air controls are in place, and consider air quality impacts on the surrounding environmental justice community,” Theoharides said.
Sen. Eric Lesser of Longmeadow issued a statement saying the administration’s decision was long overdue. “The plant should never have been considered for that location in the first place,” he said. “The idea of citing a biomass facility in the asthma capital of the United States lacked common sense or regard for equity, and I am relieved that MassDEP issued its decision to revoke the permit. This is a major victory for our region and everyone who has stood against this project.”
Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren issued a joint statement hailing the decision, calling it “a victory for Springfield residents, the health of our communities, and our fight for a livable planet.”
Laura Haight, US policy director at the Partnership for Policy Integrity, said it’s unlikely the plant will ever resurface. “While Palmer can appeal the MassDEP’s decision, and can also reapply for both the operating permit and the building permit, they are not likely to prevail, in part because of zoning changes at the local level, and the new environmental justice provisions included in the climate bill that Governor Baker signed last week,” she said in an email. “MassDEP’s decision to revoke the permit makes the likelihood of the Palmer biomass plant being built in Springfield vanishingly small.”
Vic Gatto, the chief operating officer of Palmer Renewable Energy, could not be reached for comment. In an op-ed in CommonWealth on February 27, he argued that his plant was very different from other biomass plants because it relied on wood that had been cut down for other reasons and would have rotted on the ground if it wasn’t burned. He said science was on his side.“We are hopeful those who have been so vocally opposed to our project will take the time to read and understand the facts and science and come to the same conclusion as every regulatory and judicial body that has reviewed our project: namely that this waste wood biomass facility will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, lower carbon emissions using local resources, and do so in a way that does not pose a threat to public health.”
“To demonstrate real climate leadership, the Commonwealth should stop subsidizing wood-burning entirely and focus on truly clean energy solutions.” Booth wrote.