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'Citizens' hear from biomass authority

November 18, 2009
The Concerned Citizens of Crawford County, a group opposing the construction of a biomass power plant at Milltown, brought an ally to town last week in an effort to learn more about the plants and the emissions released by burning biomass fuels.

At a gathering on the farm of State Sen. Richard Young, D-Milltown, Dr. William Sammons, a pediatrician from Cambridge, Mass., spoke to the group about the impact a biomass plant could have on their community, saying that, "If you want to invest in clean energy, there are better ways to do it."

Sammons, who has studied the impacts of biomass burning on children's health and the regulatory, public health and policy implications of public funding for biomass combustion as a means of generating electricity, was quick to point out that biomass was, in no way, carbon neutral.

"Because trees will regrow, it is assumed that biomass energy is carbon neutral," Sammons told the group. "But there's no data to substantiate this. Burning biomass is not and will never be carbon neutral. Although many claim that when trees rot, they release carbon anyway, burning 400,000 to 600,000 tons a year will accelerate that process. If you go to the LGR (Liberty Green Renewables) Web site, they claim the plants will have low emissions and that they will have scrubbers installed to control pollution, but that doesn't touch CO2, and CO2 is a big player. We don't have a complete idea of its impact yet."

Sammons went on to address the health care costs of the kind of pollution emitted by the burning of biomass.

"There's no question, it will have an impact on health care costs, especially on respiratory disease when kids are exposed to this. And exposure over time is known to cause asthma," Sammons said. "The American Lung Association says that this pollution alone can cost over $22 billion in health care. It can drive up pollen, increase allergic symptoms and, according to computer models, heat waves will increase. In the Chicago heat wave of 1995, over 600 people died and medical costs exceeded $600 million. In the California heat wave last year, 60 died and the medical costs were over $140 million. Higher CO2 and particulate levels contributed to the heat waves in both places."

Sammons said Indiana doesn't take truck traffic and particulate pollution into consideration when a company applies for an air permit. LGR's application claimed that the company would be emitting just under the amount required to be considered a major polluter.

"LGR is really close to that threshold," Sammons said. "I don't know why Indiana is doing it that way. There will be bulldozers working on-site 24 hours a day. They will be trucking in chips and trucking out ash. At a plant in Massachusetts, they started out with 80 trucks a day and are now running about 220 a day. These are real important numbers, and they're getting by with it."

Sammons also is part of a group called EcoLaw, a team of lawyers, scientists, engineers, policy analysts and medical professionals that has studied multiple federal government reports and the models used concerning the impact of biomass plants. In a recent letter to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, the group stated that, "Biomass combustion to produce electricity is a 'dirtier' method of power generation than using coal. Per unit of electricity produced, biomass combustion emits significantly more carbon dioxide, NOx, and particulate matter than coal."

The group is also working to close a "biomass loophole" in which the EPA assigns a "zero" to biomass power plant carbon dioxide emissions in its models and regulatory programs, even though, it says, they emit 1.5 to 3.2 times as much CO2 as coal per megawatt of electricity produced. According to EcoLaw, this CO2 is not immediately reabsorbed by terrestrial or aquatic carbon sinks. Rather, this CO2 remains in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years, according to the EPA. Nonetheless, biomass power plants are given financial incentives in the form of "renewable energy credits" and the avoided costs of purchasing allowances.

Tom Doddridge, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Crawford County, recently visited a biomass plant in Michigan.

"They claim that the noise from those plants wouldn't be bothersome if you're watching TV or talking on the phone within 500 feet," Doddridge said. "But try to sit on your porch. And those things run 24 hours a day. I was just behind a plant in Michigan and it was as loud as a jet airplane taking off."

LGR is also planning to build a biomass plant just outside of Scottsburg.

"I attended a meeting about the Scottsburg plant at a Baptist church in Scottsburg Tuesday evening," Cara Beth Jones, another Concerned Citizens member, said. "About 150 people showed up, and they seemed to be very informed.

"They found that there is a school about a half mile from where the plant will be built. According to that group, air at the school — which 100 percent would be good — already tested at only 27 percent, due to the traffic on the nearby Interstate 65. No one at the meeting spoke in favor of the plant."

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