Proposed biomass limits restrict new plants in 90 percent of state

MONTHS AFTER THE Baker administration pulled the plug on plans for a controversial new biomass plant in Springfield, state environmental officials proposed new regulations that would drastically limit where biomass plants can be located.

The rules promulgated by the Department of Energy Resources in April say new biomass plants located in or within five miles of an environmental justice community will not qualify as a renewable energy source under a state program, the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, or RPS, that requires energy producers to obtain a certain amount of energy from renewable sources. Financially, that would likely make it impossible for a company to locate a plant there. Environmental justice communities are generally poor communities of color that are disproportionately affected by pollution.

Practically, Massachusetts has adopted an expansive definition of environmental justice communities, which means that about 90 percent of the state is within five miles of one of these communities. Most of the remaining places where biomass would be eligible for the incentive are in rural Western Massachusetts.

The restrictions, which will be the subject of a legislative hearing on Friday, are angering representatives of the few communities that could still be targeted to host biomass plants.

“If we’re going to regulate biomass out of 90 percent of the Commonwealth, we might as well make it ineligible for [incentive programs] across the entire Commonwealth,” said Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat who represents 17 towns where biomass would remain eligible. Hinds worries that the towns in his district will be aggressively pursued by biomass companies, and he worries about pollution.

Sen. Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat who represents three eligible communities, said she has long believed biomass should not be eligible as a renewable energy source because of the pollution it creates – which makes it less “green” than wind or solar power. Comerford said she agrees with DOER’s decision to keep biomass out of environmental justice communities. But she said retaining eligibility in 10 percent of the state puts DOER “in a pretzel-like argument.”

“It’s saying biomass in environmental justice communities is bad, but biomass in Leyden is good,” Comerford said.

Sen. Patrick O’Connor, a Weymouth Republican who represents three eligible communities, spearheaded a letter signed by nine lawmakers expressing concern that in 35 municipalities, biomass would still be incentivized. “These large-scale power plants would burn about 1,200 tons of wood per day, emitting masses of soot and harmful pollutants into the air of surrounding communities, exacerbating existing consequences of poor air quality, such as asthma and other respiratory ailments,” O’Connor wrote. “These regulations not only demonstrate environmental neglect, but they are also patently unfair towards these ‘exception’ communities who are being both targeted for biomass siting and then are forced to endure the obstructive and harmful consequences of this energy production.”

According to the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, DOER is required by statute to make biomass energy eligible for the RPS program. Biomass reduces lifecycle greenhouse gases and encourages a market for low grade wood, which can promote better forest management and avoid costly expenses to dispose of the material. The office says the  five-mile exclusion was created to protect environmental justice communities that are already overburdened by pollution.

In a letter to the chairs of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, DOER commissioner Patrick Woodcock wrote that the proposed rules also align with a provision in state law that requires an environmental report for any project that impacts air quality, is likely to damage the environment, and is located within five miles of an environmental justice community.

SHIRA SCHOENBERG

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

DOC lawsuit: Are lawyers sending letters to inmates in Massachusetts prisons that are meant not so much to be read but smoked? It sounds like the plot to a zany dramedy, but a class-action lawsuit filed this week claims that’s the implication of findings against two lawyers and two inmates who have been tripped up by a faulty drug test used by the Department of Correction to detect drug residue on mail sent to state prisons. The attorneys and inmates are co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Read more

Boston police probe: A report on the Boston Police Department’s handling of the case involving former officer Patrick Rose, who was charged with child sexual assault in 1995 but wound up remaining on the force for more than 20 years, says the department failed to put in place earlier reform recommendations that might have led to Rose’s termination. Read more.

VaxMillions winners: The first two winners in the state’s VaxMillions drawings aimed at driving more people to get vaccinated are Darrell Washington of Weymouth, who won $1 million, and Chelsea High School student Daniela Moldanado, who won $300,000 in college scholarship money.  Read more.

Healey’s Grubhub fee fight: Attorney General Maura Healey filed a civil action charging the food delivery app Grubhub with being greedy and exceeding emergency limits put on food delivery fees during the pandemic state of emergency. The company says the 3 percent charge it added above the 15 percent fee cap was a “pass-through” related to credit card charges and other costs and shouldn’t count toward the cap.  Read more. 

Vax mandates poll well: With some employers already requiring workers to get COVID vaccines and other public and private sector employers weighing the idea, new results from a MassINC Polling Group survey show three-quarter of state residents support such mandates. Read more.

Tiff over TCI: Opponents of a state effort to reduce carbon emissions through the Transportation Climate Initiative, which would put fees on fuel distributors, say the effort could lead to fuel shortages by 2023. Proponents say the charge is all wrong and based on “deliberate misinterpretation” of data. Read more.

Teen charged: A 16-year-old Springfield boy has been charged with murder following an attack on a youth services worker who died several weeks later from his injuries. Read more.

 

OPINION

Test less: Lisa Guisbond and Dan French of Citizens for Public Schools applaud the recent changes to admission rules governing Massachusetts vocational technical high schools and Boston’s three selective-entry exam schools — and say we should continue to rethink assessments and the reliance on high-stakes testing in schooling. Read more

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

Weymouth firefighters are supporting new legislation on Beacon Hill that would ensure first responders diagnosed with PTSD from on-the-job trauma have access to disability benefits. (Patriot Ledger)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey is holding off on issuing a vaccine requirement for city workers, a move not everyone agrees with. (Boston Globe)

The Nahant Conservation Commission and Northeastern University are at odds over compliance issues involving land the university owns on the small peninsula town. (Item Live)

The North Adams Airport Commission is missing years worth of meeting minutes and does not publicly post its upcoming meetings. Commission officials say they are a private board not subject to the open meeting law, a claim the attorney general’s office is reviewing. (Berkshire Eagle)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Rising COVID-19 cases aren’t deterring vacationers from flocking to the Cape, according to the Chamber of Commerce and landlords. (Cape Cod Times)

Amid a rise in new COVID cases, Massachusetts reported 19,000 vaccine doses yesterday, the highest number of doses administered in one day since June 30. (MassLive)

Almost all Massachusetts hospitals are now requiring their employees to be vaccinated against COVID. (Boston Globe)

The Turners Falls-based United Arc, which provides residential services to people with disabilities, is ordered to surrender its state contracts after a poor performance review. The organization is firing its executive director. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The state gambling commission isn’t happy with the state’s two full-fledged casinos’ decision to hold off on returning poker tables to their mix of offerings. (Boston Herald)

EDUCATION

The Worcester mayor and school committee are urging school superintendent Maureen Binienda to leave quietly when her current contract is up. (Telegram & Gazette)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Activists want the Bristol County justice system reformed and New Bedford’s Ash Street Jail closed. (Herald News)

Former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked after a Vatican investigation confirmed he had sexually molested adults and children, has been charged with sexually assaulting a teenage boy during a wedding reception in Massachusetts in 1974. (Associated Press)

MassLive obtained surveillance video showing that the teen who allegedly killed a DYS worker in Springfield apparently shared a handshake and a hug with the worker minutes before assaulting him. 

Juvenile Court in Worcester remains understaffed, causing delays in cases dealing with children. (Telegram & Gazette)

MEDIA

WBUR’s Morning Edition will have a different sound come September. Former GBH investigative and human-rights reporter Rupa Shenoy will replace Bob Oakes, as he returns to reporting after 29 years hosting the show. (WBUR)