Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Some Serious Biomass Concerns

What happened in Maine can also happen here.

Although Mayor Martin deserves credit for setting up a fact-finding board for the proposed biomass plant in town, I hope it isn’t staffed by industry types who will sell their product under the guise of truth. Experience is an equally valuable commodity and Martin would have been well served had he attended a lecture which documented what happened to several towns in Northern Maine that went the biomass route and might serve as both an example and a warning. This information was brought to a small meeting in Greenfield several weeks ago in the person of Hillary Lister, a well-informed Down East activist whose parents live in our town. What made Lister’s presentation so memorable was her calm, un-dramatic demeanor which only intensified some of the uglier facts behind the biomass industry and how vigilant we Franklin County citizens need to be. Her audience was made up of concerned adults. There were no howling cries about saving Mother Earth, no Cassandra like doom-saying or self-indulgent clownishness. Just the facts, Ma’am, soberly presented. Not surprising seeing that the biomass plant in her hometown, Athens, Maine, also came with rosy promises but actual misfortune.

Biomass has been falsely presented in two forms. One is that it is a green form of renewable energy. The other is that it will benefit the town by adding corporate tax revenue to our depleted coffers which will then lower property taxes and save the average homeowner a bundle of money. While the second point has some apparent truth to it, there is much that is unsaid that will counteract any supposed benefits we might expect.

The concept behind biomass being green is that plants only burn clean unadulterated wood chips or forest debris. Supposedly, this is what is written into the town’s contract with Madera Energy. However, according to Lister, it is common for these large energy companies to sell themselves to others once they amass a substantial profit whereby the new owner “amends” the contract and the rules. At which point, up to half their burning materials can (and often do) consist of construction and demolition debris (or CCD), not to mention other questionable items like tires and carpets. All of these materials, which can contain lead, arsenic, PVCs and various carcinogenic toxins, are not only included in the smoke plume which will descend on downwind residents, but will also form a bulk of the mountains of ash that the incinerator will inevitably produce. In April 2007, a biomass plant in Bradley, Maine covered parts of the town with a blanket of black soot that, when tested, yielded high levels of lead as well as killing two pet dogs. Lister related an unsettling observation of the stack emissions hanging low over her town on misty, overcast days, adding to the smog and painting the sky a sickly bright orange on cloudy nights.

And where does all that ash go? To begin with, it will fill some of the up to 120 trucks that will rumble through town daily at the rate of one every twelve minutes. Besides increasing road reconstruction costs (which will come out of the Greenfield taxpayers’ pockets), these trucks are known to overturn, spilling their toxic debris on some unlucky resident’s lawn. Even without the capsizing, Lister related their experience of having the ash dumped in local landfills (where they can leech into neighboring water supplies) and given to farmers as compost without telling them what toxins that compost contained.

It should come as no surprise that asthma rates have been known to skyrocket in the vicinity of bio-mass plants and that the American Lung Association has come out condemning them. Not to mention our own Greenfield Board of Health. Therefore, if you like to breath clean air, you should be worried about this.

Of course, the biomass industry has conducted their own safety test but their method is to move the testing area further and further away from the plant where the dioxin levels are the highest. These rigged findings are then offered in the official study.

As far as benefitting the town and its homeowners, Lister addressed these points with some common sense advice. While it’s true that Greenfield homeowners will reap an initial reduction in their property taxes. But as the health and environmental hazards generated by Madera become more evident, outsiders will be reluctant to buy a home in Greenfield, especially if they are anywhere within a few miles of the plant. That reluctance will devalue the worth of everyone’s home in town and therefore counteract any tax benefit. Maine homeowners in towns where these plants have been located have all had a difficult time selling their homes, even before the decline of the housing market. And when housing values decline, the towns suffers reduced revenue which completes the vicious cycle. Not good for Greenfield homeowners, businesses or the town itself.

There’s that old adage, which says if something is too good to be true, it probably isn’t. Biomass, a huge industry poised to take advantage of some serious Federal energy policy funds, doesn’t tell the entire truth, according to Lister, and has yielded deficiencies in her own town that make its value dubious at best. While I know that the lure of easy money is a strong temptation for those who manage Greenfield, they better make sure they aren’t entering into a devil’s bargain that will eventually ruin our town and our county along with it.

Daniel A. Brown has lived in Franklin County for 40 years and is a frequent op-ed contributor to the Greenfield Recorder newspaper as well as a guest on the "Local Bias" show on GCTV. He is a professional landscape painter (www.danielbrownart.com), photographer and writer as well the de facto historian of the Renaissance Community.
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