On an unremarkable day in July 2009 the residents of Scottsburg and surrounding Scott County, in southern Indiana, read an unusual notice in the Scott County Journal.
The notice announced a public hearing, only 10 days away, on a request for a zoning exception and development-plan approval for Liberty Green Renewables, LLC (LGR), which wanted to construct and operate a 32-megawatt incinerator in Scottsburg to convert biomass to electricity. A few landowners adjacent to the site received letters in the mail informing them of the proposal.
The site LGR wanted to buy for the incinerator was city-owned property, within city limits, adjacent to schools, a sizable population and a reservoir that supplies the area with drinking water.
Local citizens called a meeting to discuss the proposed incinerator. That meeting, of what was to become Concerned Citizens of Scott County (CCSC), had only eight attendees.
Public interest in the LGR proposal increased when the Journal reported that the Area Plan Commission requested postponement of a decision on the proposal for two weeks, “until they could research the situation.”
This is the second of a three-part series exploring the battles southern Indiana activists have waged against biomass combustors in their bioregion:
“This alerted concerned citizens, who began frantic research and networking,” CCSC member Pat Berna wrote in an email.
Slowly CCSC teased out the facts.
Their study showed the mayor, who has been in office for 20-some years and is a member of the Indiana Municipal Power Authority board and State Renewable Energy Committee, had held meetings with LGR for several years before introducing the company’s biomass-incineration proposal to the community in 2009, Berna said in a phone interview. The mayor appeared unreceptive to or unconcerned about citizens’ concerns and data showing the potentially significant threats to public health, the environment and other negative community impacts of biomass incineration.
Concerned citizens’ research into records of meetings revealed groundwork for the incinerator had been done before early June 2009, “when the mayor briefly discussed the LGR proposal with the city council and gave only a very limited description, extolling it as a ‘dream come true,’” Berna said, and “giving no research, data or vote opportunity nor public hearing.”
Further study revealed that the proposal was rushed through the Board of Works for a brief discussion and “OK for option” for LGR to buy land for the proposed incinerator.
The Board of Works was composed of the mayor and two city-council members whom he appointed.
"The public majority was unaware or blindly trusting the elected-official system with about 80 percent of officials favoring the incinerator."
The local Economic Development Council was involved secretly early on, also.
According to Berna, examination of the process and public records revealed the appearance of “its all being very rushed, not publicized, undocumented and under-researched and secretive, without public awareness.”
At higher government levels “biomass as a major effective and safe renewable energy concept was promoted by the governor, some prominent state senators, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Purdue University,” Berna wrote.
Very early in the struggle, Berna said, it appeared that the “public majority was unaware or blindly trusting the elected-official system with about 80 percent of officials” favoring the incinerator. Besides the mayor, a majority of the city council, Board of Works, Economic Development Corp. and Area Plan Commission supported LGR’s proposal.
After extensive research CCSC quickly established its goal, to stop the incinerator, and its strategy, to invest time and money, Berna wrote, “in alerting and mobilizing the community to (1) pressure the city council to not approve a new option to sell … land to LGR, and (2) elect new city council members that [would] be advocates for protection of the public health, welfare and community environment, rather than pawns to a powerful mayor’s will.”
The city council was in a significant position vis-à-vis LGR’s proposal. It could sell land to LGR, provide tax abatements and special deals on water and other utilities, and arrange for highway development, for example. "The mayor appeared unreceptive to or unconcerned about citizens’ concerns and data showing the potentially significant threats to public health, the environment and other negative community impacts of biomass incineration."
Numerous “weights tipped the scales of justice” in favor of the opposition, Berna said in the phone interview.
The first weight was the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission’s (IURC) ruling that LGR couldn’t operate an incinerator without being monitored. A Citizens Action Coalition (CAC) attorney achieved this ruling by arguing that LGR shouldn’t be allowed to operate without regulations.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) approved LGR’s air permit.
Another weight was the fact that Bloomington environmental attorney Mick Harrison and Indiana-based GreenFire Consulting Group LLC “took on the air permit aggressively” and testified at an IDEM hearing. Their appeal on the air permit remained in court throughout the struggle.
Another big weight was financial help in the form of grants from the Biomass Accountability Project and Heartwood and lots of donations from the community.
The overwhelming community mobilization, with huge turnouts at public hearings and citizens’ voicing opposition to the incinerator project, had a huge impact.
The county commissioners were “invaluable,” Berna said. The citizens approached them early on, and the commissioners “were sold immediately that the incinerator wasn’t something we wanted in our community.” They passed a clean-air ordinance similar to the one drafted in Crawford County, which had been fighting an LGR biomass proposal for about a year. In May 2012 the commissioners denied LGR a permit.
With the assistance of CAC canvassers, CCSC did a door-to-door survey and found that 90 percent of those polled opposed the LGR project. The mayor’s stated perception was that the opposition was limited to only a few people.
Another big weight was the Area Plan Commission’s denial of a building permit to LGR.
Yet another weight was one city council member’s taking the Board of Works to court for inappropriately offering financial incentives to LGR. By law, Berna said, the board isn’t permitted to grant tax abatements or other incentives, which are supposed to come only from the city council. The case went on a long time, and eventually the board lost.
A “deep-pocket supporter” paid for that case, which “robbed LGR of a lot of power,” Berna said.
One of the heaviest weights was changing the political balance of the city council through elections. Originally one council member opposed the LGR project. Later on, after much public discussion and political pressure, a couple council members seemed to be unlikely to support LGR, but their future votes and actions were uncertain, according to research into citizen opinion, Berna said. The answer was for the citizens to place their own people in office. "The overwhelming community mobilization, with huge turnouts at public hearings and citizens’ voicing opposition to the incinerator project, had a huge impact."
The political changes the citizens wrought “took the teeth out of the political machinery that was operating carte blanche, outside researched checks and balances,” Berna said.
CCSC groomed two people to run for city council, and they won. As a result, the city council, made up of five people, had a majority of three members who were well-educated on environmental issues.
The local person with “deep pockets,” according to Berna, helped pay for political ads on TV before the primary election. An aggressive campaign ensued, with hard-hitting ads that proclaimed “time for a change.” The ads mentioned the biomass controversy.
As of Feb. 15, 2011, several legal cases were in progress, Berna said.
“It was a political and legal battle with the public behind [the opposition].” In LGR’s proposal were many legal problems that Harrison and GreenFire had identified, so there was the potential for more legal cases.
Another weight that “helped people come to their senses,” Berna said, was a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Health Institute that found that for two consecutive years, 2010 and 2011, Scott County had the worst public health outcomes in the state, ranking 92nd among the state’s 92 counties in morbidity and mortality.
On April 25, 2012, Grist reported that according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2012 report, released on that day, among the 10 U.S. regions “with the dubious distinction of having the most year-round particle pollution,” Scottsburg shares the ninth place with Louisville and Elizabethtown, Ky.
LGR withdrew its air-permit and other applications before the election, after CCSC’s candidates won in the primary. "After about seven months of hammering, rapid organizing and persistent outreach and education, CCSC began to see some signs of a response to the political pressure."
“It was clear,” Berna said, “that the local political machine was no longer going to be of use to them” and that the citizens were not going to give up. Further, LGR saw the people had funds and the air-permit appeal was ongoing.
The community remains vulnerable to approaches by other polluting industries if some local officials continue to be unreceptive to data and research attuned to environmental and public health concerns. Study shows some local officials tend to be undiscriminating when it comes to which businesses are appropriate and safe, Berna said.
“Now I watch the newspaper like a hawk, looking for the ‘next fine mess’ to be sprung upon us,” she said.
However, the mayor is behind the local Mid-America Science Park, which is supposed to be “an incubator for new, cutting-edge businesses,” Berna said. People are hoping truly sustainable and renewable industries, such as wind and solar, will establish themselves in the park.
The battle couldn’t have succeeded without the involvement of the community and CCSC’s networking. The organization contacted other grassroots Indiana organizations -- Save the Valley, Heartwood, Indiana Forest Alliance. They also talked to Concerned Citizens of Crawford County and grassroots organizations fighting biomass proposals around the country.
Dr. William Sammons, a pediatrician and vocal opponent of biomass incineration who says such incineration is “dirtier than coal,” visited the community several times to educate the public and testify against the incinerator at government hearings.
CCSC also received “invaluable help,” Berna said, from Biomass Accountability and Biomass Watch, two organizations that Sammons cofounded; CAC; and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, the organization that Lois Gibbs founded after the Love Canal disaster. "It has taken the entire body of a well-mobilized, visible and vocalized community to force changes from local elected and appointed government bodies." “After about seven months of hammering, rapid organizing and persistent outreach and education, CCSC began to see some signs of a response to the political pressure,” Berna said.
That “hammering” consisted of networking, organizing, installing yard signs, circulating petitions, holding many meetings, going door to door with fliers, broadcasting radio spots and TV ads, making phone calls and attending local government meetings, all of which “worked to swing the balance finally despite the fact that the people were denied a voice and access to agendas” at government meetings, Berna said.
At January and February 2010 public hearings more than 700 people protested the biomass proposal. Fewer than five testified in favor of the proposal, and none of them were locals except for the mayor -- they were “out-of-towners consisting of potential LGR business associates and those mandated by their USDA bosses,” Berna wrote.
By Feb. 15, 2011, more than 2,000 people had signed petitions against the incinerator and posted yard signs all over the community. The citizens “kept the pressure up” and continued to be “in the mayor’s face” and those of other elected officials. By that time “the majority of the community and some governing and appointed bodies (by vote or voice) oppose[d] LGR’s biomass proposal,” Berna wrote.
CCSC had booths at two county fairs. Community members attended all the city council and other government meetings.
“The public pressure didn’t let up,” Berna said. “We knew we had right and science on our side. … It has taken the entire body of a well-mobilized, visible and vocalized community” to force changes from local elected and appointed government bodies.
CCSC is providing support to other communities threatened with biomass proposals.
“Each community assisted,” Berna wrote, “becomes another member of the concerned citizens’ alliance statewide and nationally and joins the grassroots effort to help all in need. This outreach is important to CCSC and Concerned Citizens of Crawford County as well, and the work of providing guidance/advice, donating (research materials, literature, signs, bumper stickers), public speaking support and consulting support is very productive.”
Berna observed, “typically with a large, well-back and funded [corporation], the primary plan is to outspend and out-persist the community/public opposition until [the citizens] wear out and/or can’t afford to continue to resist.”
Berna learned a lot from her experience fighting the proposed biomass incinerator in Scottsburg. "More communities and individuals need to know they can make a difference. Apathy is the enemy."
She said in an email dated April 26, 2012, “I learned so much about combustion/burning, and global threats/global warming, as well as the scientific concerns with the many hazardous chemicals. I learned a lot about geothermal, solar and wind power generation and am hopeful for their future roles in significant clean energy production.”
“It has encouraged me,” she continued, “to see that persistence and public education and public mobilization with political pressure can ‘beat city hall.’
“It was amazing that many appointed/elected officials (good old boy gang), and their loosely affiliated associates, persisted with blind support of bad leadership decisions by powerful officials regardless of scientific data showing biomass combustion for electric generation to be an unsafe choice, clearly not what is best for people/environment or the economy.
“Having the opportunity to be part of the groups and [to mobilize] a community's success is very affirming. … More communities and individuals need to know they can make a difference. Apathy is the enemy. It has been spiritually uplifting to see groups and individuals reach out to help other communities in peril.”
Linda Greene can be reached at email@example.com.