They're clean! They're green! Or so the industry PR boasts about biomass power plants. If anything, the opposite is true.
Biomass is any substance that isn't a fossil fuel and is arguably organic. Wood waste is one of the primary fuels that biomass incinerators burn. Wood waste includes industrial wood waste (like shipping pallets and sawdust), which is often contaminated with toxic chemicals and plastics that form dioxin, the most potent carcinogen ever studied, when burned.
Biomass power plants aren't built in white, middle-class neighborhoods but in urban neighborhoods populated with poor people of color. Other prime locations are poor, rural areas, such as Crawford County, in southwest Indiana.
Concerned Citizens of Crawford County formed 14 months ago to fight a proposed wood-burning biomass power plant near Milltown on the scenic Blue River. It would be the first biomass plant in Indiana and the first one constructed and operated by Liberty Green Renewables LLC.
The incinerator would cost about $90 million, be up and running by late next year and burn "clean" wood. Neither the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) nor Liberty Green has defined "clean."
The biomass plant would burn 400,000 tons of wood per year -- that's 1,096 tons per day. Where Liberty Green will obtain the wood to burn is an unanswered question. Local wood processors, such as sawmills, don't produce enough waste wood to satisfy the incinerator.
Nearby are the Hoosier National Forest and several state forests. The state is already logging public lands heavily, and Liberty Green claims it will "sweep" the forest floor after logging operations.
Environmental groups worry that Liberty Green might start cutting down trees to feed the biomass plant. Forests provide many benefits, not the least of which is the capacity to store carbon and thereby alleviate global climate change.
Ninety-eight chemicals, among them lead, mercury, formaldehyde chloroform, arsenic and two types of dioxin, will emerge from the smokestack, according to Liberty Green's air-permit application.
According to Dr. William Sammons, M.D., a pediatrician and biomass expert, biomass plants emit 1.5 times more air pollution than coal plants. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), coal power is the single largest contributor to global-warming greenhouse gases on the planet.
Liberty Green doesn't have to report its carbon dioxide emissions because IDEM classifies the plant as a source of "renewable" energy and as a "minor" polluter. The company says it would release 249.9 tons of nitrogen oxide annually. What luck: if the number were 250, EPA would consider it a "major" source of nitrogen oxide and would require more-stringent regulations on the plant.
Disposal of the toxic ash and wastewater from the incinerator and water usage are other issues. The contents of the ash residue aren't reported in the air-emissions permit application, but the amount is stated -- 50 tons per hour.
Liberty Green originally intended to use the ash to make concrete blocks but as of Sept. 28 has requested an on-site ash dump. Because of the karst topography, an underground complex of limestone filled with sinkholes, caves and streams, the ash would inevitably leach into the groundwater.
The incinerator would require 700,000 gallons of water a day to operate. Liberty Green originally planned to obtain water from the relatively clean Blue River to run the plant and to dump the toxic wastewater back into the river. But the Indiana Department of Natural Resource's Blue River Commission passed a resolution vetoing the plan. The Blue River Water Co. pumps only 200,000 gallons of groundwater a day from five wells.
Liberty Green now plans to obtain the water from Harrison County, which often experiences water shortages, and to dump the wastewater on the plant's grounds, where it will invade the karst, pollute the groundwater and be inaccessible for cleanup.
The incinerator would produce 67 million gallons of wastewater annually, or about 173,000 gallons a day.
"This permit is being considered using vague information, evolving assumptions and definitions, and calculations based upon outdated data and inappropriate citations." - Tom Dodderidge, former superintendent of Crawford County schools
Liberty Green claims the incinerator will bring jobs to Crawford County, but the company itself reported that the plant would have only 25 permanent job openings and require that its employees have five years' biomass experience. According to Concerned Citizens, Crawford County has no residents with any experience working at a biomass plant.
Concerned Citizens fears the plant might put small farmers out of business. Farmers need sawdust as bedding for their animals, and it's already scarce and expensive. The biomass plant would burn all the available sawdust in the area.
The incinerator is located in a sensitive area. Not only do the nearby river, forests and caves attract tourists, but it's only a half mile from the Blue River, a mile from an elementary school, a mile from a home for the elderly and disabled and three miles from Marengo Cave. The young and the old are particularly vulnerable to the health effects of the particulate pollution the incinerator will produce.
Concerned citizens estimates that 50 trucks making 300 trips per day would cart wood waste to the incinerator over narrow, curvy, hilly State Road 66. Neither IDEM nor EPA requires Liberty Green to track or report the air pollution from those truck trips or to mitigate the damage such heavy equipment would cause to rural roadways.
Residents of Scottsburg are fighting a second proposed Liberty Green biomass plant. Thirty-five miles from Crawford County, the second plant would compete with the first one for fuel. Rumor has it that Liberty Green has its sights set on a third biomass plant, in Putnam County.
Cara Beth Jones, founder of Concerned Citizens said, "It's important to fight and not to let corporations run over you."
In formal public comments on the air permit submitted to IDEM's Air Quality Office, Tom Dodderidge, former superintendent of Crawford County schools, summed up the injustices of the biomass project:
"I strongly believe my rights, and the rights of all citizens affected by this proposed waste incinerator, are being violated. This permit is being considered using vague information, evolving assumptions and definitions, and calculations based upon outdated data and inappropriate citations. If this permit is issued under these conditions, then my health, the health of my family members, and the health of all affected in the area will have been wrongfully compromised, simply because such words like 'renewable' and 'clean' energy are being liberally construed by developers to reap tax credits and other lucrative government program give-a-ways."
The fight against biomass is growing at the national level. On Jan. 26 a national coalition of 48 citizen and environmental groups launched a nationwide campaign to end federal financing for biomass incinerators.
"The incinerator is located in a sensitive area. Not only do the nearby river, forests and caves attract tourists, but it's only a half mile from the Blue River, a mile from an elementary school, a mile from a home for the elderly and disabled and three miles from Marengo Cave."
The groups launched the campaign with the delivery on Capitol Hill of a letter to Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) in response to increased lobbying by the Biomass Power Association, timber, waste and energy companies seeking to create or extend lucrative tax credits for burning biomass (trash, tires, and anything else) to produce electric power. The groups say the biomass plants pose an undue risk to public health and the environment.
The letter notes that the 20,000-member Massachusetts Medical Society recently resolved to adopt a policy opposing biomass power plants on the grounds that they pose "an unacceptable health risk" and that the American Lung Association of New England and the Florida Medical Society have passed similar resolutions in response to a torrent of biomass power plant proposals in recent years.
"President Obama announced today a freeze on domestic spending for next year's budget," said attorney Margaret Sheehan and Dr. Sammons, spokespersons for the group. "There are 200 biomass plants lining up for grants in lieu of tax credits under the stimulus package, at a cost to taxpayers of at least a half a billion dollars. Ending subsidies for incinerators falsely claiming to be clean energy is a good place to start cleaning up the federal budget deficit."
Linda Greene can be reached at email@example.com.