Despite his claims, science is not on Vic Gatto’s side
Proponent of biomass power plant is making up ‘facts’
VIC GATTO has been a tireless campaigner for the 42-megawatt biomass power plant in East Springfield that his company wants to build over widespread community opposition. But in his effort to ostensibly dispel “public misinformation” about the proposed Palmer Renewable Energy plant (“Biomass Plant COO Says Science is on His Side,” Feb. 27, 2021), he is simply blowing more smoke.
We’ll grant Gatto’s complaint that the permitting process, which began in 2008, has been lengthy, complex, and litigious. This is testament to how bitterly contested this proposal has been from the beginning. But just because this plant has a permit does not make it benign.
Let’s look at the facts. According to its 2011 operating permit from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, the Palmer biomass plant will burn nearly a ton of green wood chips per minute around the clock, requiring a smokestack more than 20 stories high to help disperse the pollution.
Even with “state of the art” pollution controls, the plant will emit more than 200 tons of harmful air pollutants each year, including fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic chemicals, and heavy metals such as mercury and lead. And that’s assuming the plant, once built, is able to comply with its permit restrictions. Around the country, the performance of biomass plants has been less than stellar, with frequent cases of air and water permit violations, fires, and other environmental hazards.
These impacts are likely to be particularly acute in an overburdened environmental justice community like Springfield, where state environmental health tracking data show that residents already suffer from disproportionately high rates of asthma and heart attack hospitalizations, poor air quality, and inadequate access to health care. Attorney General Maura Healey’s office has written that “the proposed biomass facility in Springfield would jeopardize the health of an environmental community already deemed the nation’s ‘asthma capital.’”
In addition to denying the health risks, Gatto continues to make unsubstantiated claims about the climate benefits of his project, claiming that a state-sponsored study concludes that burning “waste” wood such as tree trimmings will result in less greenhouse gas pollution compared to chipping it and “allowing it to decompose to methane on the ground.”
We could not find this statement anywhere in the studies Gatto cited — probably because it’s not what the science says. Burning a ton of green wood releases about a ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere instantaneously. That same ton of wood, if left to decompose on the forest floor, would gradually emit carbon dioxide over a span of 10-25 years, returning some of the carbon to the soil and forest ecosystem. Methane — a potent climate-warming gas — is only created when oxygen is not available. In reality, a much more likely source of methane from rotting wood will be the 30-foot high, 5,000-ton wood chip fuel pile at the plant.
Gatto also claims that opponents fail to distinguish between his project, which is permitted to only burn wood “wastes” (such as pruned branches, stumps, and trees removed for utility line, right-of-way, and park maintenance), and other biomass plants that burn trees that were logged for fuel. In fact, from the smokestack, the emissions are identical. A typical wood-burning power plant emits about 50 percent more carbon dioxide than a coal plant per megawatt hour and comparable amounts of conventional air pollutants.
The only difference is how the net lifecycle carbon emissions from the biomass energy produced are calculated. Our research shows that even burning wood waste for energy (as opposed to whole trees) increases net greenhouse gas emissions for decades, well past the timeframe where climate scientists agree that steep emissions reductions are necessary.
Massachusetts led the nation in 2012 when it implemented science-based standards limiting which biomass facilities would qualify for subsidies under the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). By restricting benefits to efficient combined heat-and-power plants, the regulations booted out inefficient and polluting biomass plants in Maine that were being propped up by Massachusetts subsidies, and disqualified the proposed Springfield plant, too. Gatto was not successful in lobbying the Patrick administration to weaken the renewable portfolio standard requirements, but has received a friendly reception from Gove. Charlie Baker and his energy undersecretary, Patrick Woodcock, who came to work for Baker after advocating for the biomass power industry in Maine.Now the Baker administration is proposing to roll back the renewable portfolio standard regulations and eliminate any efficiency requirements for biomass power plants that will burn primarily wood wastes – changes that will directly benefit Palmer.
Mary S. Booth is the director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity inn Pelham. For more information on the biomass plant proposed in Springfield, visit notoxicbiomass.org.