The biomass-combustion industry has southern Indiana under seige. The corporations are attempting to site biomass electricity-generating plants in Crawford, Scott, Dubois and Gibson/Pike counties. Those companies apparently don’t expect opposition from the residents of small towns in rural southern Indiana.
The industry touts biomass burning as a “green” technology; it’s anything but. Biomass plants are more polluting per unit of energy generated than coal-burning plants, which are the No. 1 cause of global warming. A 32-megawatt biomass plant uses 500,000–700,000 gallons of fresh water every day and regurgitates some 350,000 gallons of pollution-tainted waste water into the local river or lake.
It’s a factory for manufacturing dioxins, the most carcinogenic synthetic chemical known. The list of biomass’s hazards in relation to the land, water and air goes on and on.
Liberty Green Renewables LLC (LGR) has been looking for sites that are heavily forested because it wants to use wood as fuel. It’s proposed a $100 million, 32-megawatt biomass plant for Scott County (population 23,000), near Scottsburg (pop. 5,900), the county seat.
"It’s very heroic what communities do to protect themselves, their children, protecting the public health, for future generations." - Pat Berna, Concerned Citizens of Scott County
One morning in July 2009, when she was reading the newspaper, Pat Berna, a retired registered nurse and Scottsburg resident, spotted a notice of a public hearing by the Scott County Area Plan Commission on a proposed biomass combustor.
Berna was alarmed. She had had experience with another polluting facility that tried to establish itself in Scott County in 1989. The company, Recontek, wanted to site a hazardous-waste recycling business there. Scott County citizens’ research left them firmly believing that Recontek had no place in their community.
They discovered that the company used cyanide to strip off silver from old film negatives in its plant in Elk Grove Village, Ill., and exposed its employees, mostly undocumented immigrants, to cyanide. One of them died of cyanide poisoning.
The fight against Recontek was exhausting and ran for about five months, at the end of which the community drove the company out of town. That was Berna’s first experience as a community organizer.
Even without a biomass combustor, Scott County is in bad shape. In the last few years many local industries, which employed thousands, shut down, as did area businesses. Scott County’s unemployment rate is 11 percent.
As for pollution, the Wisconsin Population Health Institute and Robert Wood John Foundation found Scott County to have the worst public health of all counties in Indiana. The children who attend Scott County schools have an above-normal rate of attention-deficit disorder and autism, according to Berna. The rate of Alzheimer’s disease is elevated, also.
After Berna saw the notice in the paper, she called several citizens she new from Recontek days, and they got to work.
They held a meeting a local café; only a few people attended. They named themselves Concerned Citizens of Scott County.
"It’s kind of like you’re fighting for your home." - Cara Beth Jones, Concerned Citizens of Crawford County
First they called Rick Hill, with Save the Valley, a Madison, Ind., watchdog organization that helped halt construction of the Marble Hill nuclear reactor in 1984 and remains an environmental force in the region today. Hill referred Berna to Andy Mahler, director of the forest-protection organization Heartwood, based in Paoli, Ind. Then Berna called the Citizens Action Coalition (CAC) in Indianapolis; she’d met several of the staff members during Recontek days. CAC likewise referred her to Mahler.
Heartwood, Indiana Forest Alliance and other forest-protection groups fear that biomass operators will log public forests to keep their plants operating. Environmental and public health degradation also were concerns raised.
Mahler referred Berna to Cara Beth Jones, of Concerned Citizens of Crawford County (CCCC), an organization that was fighting an LGR biomass proposal in that county. Berna and Jones met halfway between their towns, and Jones shared information with Berna and gave her a box of documents. CCSC was “off and running,” Berna observed in a phone interview.
At Jones’s suggestion, CCSC invited Dr. Bill Sammons, a Massachusetts pediatrician and expert opponent of biomass, to speak in Scott County, as he had in Crawford. Only eight citizens attended his talk.
CCSC started calling and e-mailing other communities around the country -- among them ones in Vermont, Massachusetts, Florida, Georgia and Missouri -- that were fighting biomass proposals. From those communities CCSC obtained information and moral support.
"100 percent of emissions coming out of the smokestack would be air pollution." - Chris Breedlove, Jasper minister
CCSC launched a petition drive in Scott County and started handing out literature on biomass. The petition, according to Berna, was “short and sweet.”
“We used the common formula that grassroots organizations will tell you about,” Berna stated. The purpose was to “plaster the community with awareness, in particular people who lived closest to the LGR site and would be most affected personally.”
CCSC members went door to door and left leaflets in public places, such as beauty and coffee shops, and on bulletin boards. As time went on, more businesses let CCSC place fliers on their countertops. ”It took a lot of work and shoe leather,” Berna asserted.
They sent letters to the editor to the local paper and scraped together the money to publish small ads. They had to compete with LGR’s front-page, full-page ads. It’s a “David vs. Goliath situation,” Berna remarked. Thus, they introduced a discussion of the combustor in the community.
“Keeping the community mobilized is a challenge,” Berna noted. Again CCSC scrambled to find money for bumper stickers and yard signs. They gave away the signs for free to people who wanted to post them but couldn’t afford to; that way they got the signs posted all over town.
”It’s not fair,” Berna noted, “that people have to spend that much money to protect themselves. … It’s very heroic what communities do to protect themselves, their children, protecting the public health, for future generations.”
They posted 6-by-4-foot signs at the roads leading into and out of the town and on other major roadways. “It’s been very exciting to see the public get involved,” Berna affirmed.
CCSC’s research demonstrated that the biomass plant would require 115 semi trips per day carting biomass to be burned. That doesn’t count the trucks leaving the site with ash from the combustor. For eight to 10 hours per day, that would mean one semi every two or three minutes.
CCSC Googled Indiana Department of Transportation figures and found that nearby state roads 356, 56 and 32 already have 11,000 vehicular trips a day. With the commuter traffic, school buses and emergency vehicles, Berna said, a “logistic nightmare” would ensue. The big trucks would make wide turns at low speeds, causing traffic to run “at the speed of a snail on Valium,” Berna said, and creating a “gridlock.”
They tried to get toxic emissions from the truck traffic counted as part of the total emissions from the plant. Throughout, according to Berna, LGR “has demonstrated extreme arrogance” in estimating the emissions from the plant itself. The company insists that the plant would release only 249,999.99 pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, whereas emitting 250,000 would qualify the plant as a major polluter, mandating more-stringent restrictions on the emissions.
The mayor was concerned about the town’s economic status and is responsible for bringing in LGR. He’s on the state renewable energy board and convinced the economic development commission that LGR would bring in jobs. But it turns out that the biomass plant would bring in only 23 jobs, mostly of them not filled locally. Some additional jobs would be for temporary, construction-phase work.
CCSC also found links between LGR, Reliant Energy/Reliant Resources, Halliburton and Enron; of LGR’s four founding partners, three were highly placed executives with Reliant. LGR is run by former Enron executives, according to CAC. CCSC discovered that Reliant had been fined billions for illegal trading practices, among them shuttering their plants to create the false impression of an energy shortage to run up their prices. “It all stinks,” Berna declared.
The next step was convincing the county commissioners to pass an ordinance requiring industries making proposals to submit to the county detailed financial, technical and environmental data for a license application. LGR would have to produce a detailed environmental impact study.
In a victory for local citizens, the commissioners passed the ordinance, which Berna calls a “stripped-down” version of the one Crawford County passed earlier.
"The old days that you can’t fight city hall and you just tend to your own business don’t work any more because when they start messing with your air and your water and poisoning your soil, they bring the damage to you." - Pat Berna, Concerned Citizens of Scott County
Thanks to the citizens’ efforts to examine LGR’s land-development permit application, the Scott County Area Plan Commission denied the permit because of traffic and environmental problems. LGR promptly filed an appeal of the ruling. CAC has joined with the Area Plan Commission to defend its ruling in court, Berna said.
The Scottsburg case is also before the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC). When the Office of Utility Consumer Counselor, the state agency charged with protecting consumer interests in matters before the IURC, held a hearing on the plant earlier this year, more than 300 people testified against it.
At a hearing that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) held this past February before granting permits to LGR, about 800 people attended. During the five hours of testimony, all the locals voiced opposition to the biomass project.
IDEM, Berna maintains, is corrupt, and most developers receive their permits. “Part of it is faulty science, part of it politics, and part of it is who’s got the most money to distribute around,” Berna said. “It’s back on the shoulders of the grassroots movement to yell and holler. Most gains are won at the local level.”
Berna insists that it’s up to the grassroots to educate the general public and elected officials. ”Political pressure is very important because elected officials want to get re-elected, so they’re receptive to what an aggressively vocal and mobilized public wants. Local mobilization is the way to go, but it requires lots of time and energy.”
She went on to say, “The old days that you can’t fight city hall and you just tend to your own business don’t work any more because when they start messing with your air and your water and poisoning your soil, they bring the damage to you. If you want to defend yourself, you have to get outside your property lines and get active.”
CCSC feels an obligation to pass on the knowledge they acquired during the fight against the biomass plant. “That’s the way grassroots groups operate normally,” Berna averred.
"The only reason for the Jasper discussion of biomass is that there are millions of dollars in federal subsidies that are available for these biomass companies." - Chris Breedlove, Jasper ministerIn Milltown (population 900) in Crawford County (population less than 11,000), where LGR made its southern Indiana debut, “It’s kind of like you’re fighting for your home,” observed Cara Beth Jones, co-chair of Concerned Citizens of Crawford County (CCCC).
In a letter to the editor dated Sept. 7, Jones said Liberty Green has obtained an air permit from IDEM and that on August 31, CCCC filed an appeal. In July Liberty Green withdrew its application for the land permit. LGR was responding to IDEM, which had sent a notification of 14 deficiencies in the permit application in April after CCCC detected them.
On Oct.29, the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) named CCCC its "Frontline Advocate of the Year" for their efforts to maintain the environmental quality of their county. This honor, bestowed by Indiana's largest environmental organization, is given to one group per year.
The biomass industry isn’t finished with southern Indiana. It’s invading Jasper, Ind., (population 12,000), the county seat of Dubois County (population 39,700).
The Jasper Utility Service Board (USB) wants to convert an old coal-fired power plant to a biomass combustor or to one that burns both coal and biomass. They’re considering fueling the plant with switchgrass or miscanthus grass.
"It’s back on the shoulders of the grassroots movement to yell and holler. Most gains are won at the local level." - Pat Berna, Concerned Citizens of Scott County
The USB is formally receiving proposals from biomass companies and has held initial discussions with four. Many of the significant discussions pertaining to the power plan’s conversion to biomass have been “executive sessions,” which are closed to the general public. The USB has provided the public with only “vague, limited information,” Chris Breedlove, a Jasper minister, said in a phone interview.
About a year and a half ago Breedlove became aware of Crawford County’s battle against LGR, but only this past summer did he do his “homework,” as he put it, researching biomass combustion and eventually starting Concerned Citizens for Health of Dubois County (CCHDC).
CCHDC objects to the secrecy surrounding the USB’s negotiations with biomass companies in Jasper. They want the City to hold public discussions with public participation and to hold the USB accountable for any decisions they make.
In August, CCHDC held a public forum at Breedlove’s church, hoping it would be a catalyst for future, City-run public meetings. That was the first public discussion of biomass in Jasper. Knowledge the citizens of Jasper have to offer, CCDC argues, should inform the USB’s decisions.
On Oct. 17, the citizens of Dubois County received the public meeting they had requested. Hosted by the USB, the meeting concerned the coal-burning power plant and whether the property should be sold, transferred, exchanged or leased.
Breedlove thinks that health and the environment, “which are one and the same,” should be the top priorities in discussions of biomass. He is concerned about the health and environmental costs of biomass combustion: three of his four children are asthmatic, and air pollution, especially the particulate matter that biomass burning produces, is a trigger. As Breedlove learned from doing his “homework,” “100 percent of emissions coming out of the smokestack would be air pollution.”
"Citizens are learning that they can insist on quality of life and that they should insist on the City leaders’ accountability." - Chris Breedlove, Jasper minister
In an e-mail, Breedlove said about an interview with a local reporter, “I said that air pollution is air pollution regardless of the biomass fuel source. And I also said that the dangers and risks of one biomass fuel source are no better than the dangers and risks of the next biomass fuel source.”
Breedlove sees CCHDC as “proponents” of clean air and quality of life in Dubois County, whereas the USB has labeled the group’s concerns and positions "opposition” to biomass combustion.
So far there’s no indication on the record that the USB consulted any medical personnel about the health effects of biomass before CCDHC “got engaged in the conversation,” Breedlove asserted.
One of the favorable results of the Jasper struggle is that the surrounding communities are working together with CCHDC in a “genuine grassroots movement to empower their cause for clean air and quality of life,” Breedlove said. For instance, CCHDC’s first “No biomass” yard signs came from Scott County Concerned Citizens.
CCHDC has asked the City to retire the coal plant. “’Let it sit’ has been our phrase,” Breedlove said.
Breedlove thinks that change begins at the local level and moves up to the state and federal levels. As in Scott County, people take up individual tasks, scrounge for money and are “making this happen.”
"Keeping the community mobilized is a challenge." - Pat Berna, Concerned Citizens of Scott County
To raise community awareness and make the conversation public, 25 citizens held an overnight vigil in front of city hall, passing out leaflets and “No biomass, clean air” signs. One result was a front-page story in the local newspaper.
On Oct. 2, wrote Breedlove in an e-mail, CCDHC “hit the farmers market and downtown square with fliers getting the word out about the October 11th hearing at City Hall.” He continued, “We met a lot of motivated parents at the ‘Kid's Day’ downtown square, plus we met a mother from nearby Oakland City that was a part of a movement to keep biomass away from there. It was a real encouraging day. In addition we mailed out 50 DVDs of Won’t Back Down and Biomass Concerns to area community leaders concerning the dangers of biomass and examples of better solutions; we have 50 more... to mail very soon.”
About his personal views Breedlove says, “I consider the whole context outside of the church to be the parish the ministry should be helping.”
Public officials, Breedlove said, have been “very reluctant to touch [this topic],” especially during the recent electoral-campaign season. Breedlove believes that “even public officials not directly involved in the decision are obligated to the people they represent to have an opinion on [the biomass project.]” He’s had conversations with public officials off the record but has stressed to them that what they say “doesn’t mean anything if they don’t state their opinions on the record.”
Breedlove and his family moved to Jasper from San Antonio. He thought Jasper was the kind of community in which “people would look after each other’s children, where you’d know your neighbors, watch football games together.” But in the three years he’s lived in Jasper he’s noticed “a disconnect between leaders and citizens.”
"They proposed to be an ethanol facility with a biomass power generation facility that would generate its own electricity and sell the excess to the power grid." - Rachel Lewis, Pike Gibson Citizens for Quality Environment
Many people, he continued, “have underlying feelings that we’ve elected our leaders to make decisions, so let them make decisions.” He believes that the leadership “should tap into knowledge of citizens and work with them on these issues.”
“Citizens are learning,” Breedlove observed, “that they can insist on quality of life and that they should insist on the City leaders’ accountability.”
At one entrance to Jasper is a water tower with “A Tradition in Progress” written on it. Breedlove said, “Jasper has a wonderful tradition, a beautiful heritage, but we’re missing the progress.” Thinking of biomass as a substitute for a coal plant, he says, “isn’t forward thinking.”
“The only reason for the Jasper discussion of biomass is that there are millions of dollars in federal subsidies that are available for these biomass companies, otherwise Jasper wouldn’t have the millions of dollars to convert the coal plant,” Breedlove said. People are “stepping out” of the coal industry and into biomass; “they’re one and the same.”
He added, “Citizens shouldn’t be left unadvised considering potentially millions of dollars of transactions that the city will be involved in involving federal subsidies. … Everyone should have a voice in how that happens, if it happens at all.”
For now, Oakland City (pop. 2,500), in Gibson County (population 32,500), seems to have repelled a proposed Ripatti biomass plant. The plant was supposed to be sited barely over the county line in Pike County, three miles from the heart of Oakland City.
“This is one thing that made it so tricky to fight,” according to Rachel Lewis, treasurer of Pike Gibson Citizens for Quality Environment (PGCQE), in an e-mail. “Gibson County,” she continued,” would have been heavily impacted.”
"We just tried to keep our voice and presence out there at all times" - Rachel Lewis, Pike Gibson Citizens for Quality Environment
“The facility being proposed in Pike County, Ind., was a co-generation facility,” Lewis said. “They proposed to be an ethanol facility with a biomass power generation facility that would generate its own electricity and sell the excess to the power grid. In August of 2008 they dropped the ethanol production idea because they said it wasn't profitable. However, they planned to proceed with the biomass plant if they could obtain investors. Thus far there has been no forward movement that I am aware of regarding that plant. ... The fuel source they plan to use if they build this facility is turkey manure.”
PGCQE held monthly public meetings to educate the public about the health and environmental effects of biomass combustion. They spoke to their elected officials.
“We just tried to keep our voice and presence out there at all times,” Lewis said. “Thus far it has worked; however, there is nothing keeping it from progressing behind the scenes right now. I do not know if the lack of funding is what has staved it off for now -- or the lack of community support. I do not know if we will ever know.”
Linda Greene can be reached at .
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Cara Beth Jones,