After years of protests, the state Department of Environmental Protection on Friday revoked a critical air permit for a massive wood-burning power plant proposed to be built in Springfield, which opponents said would pollute the city and contribute to climate change.
In a five-page letter, state officials cited potential adverse health impacts in rejecting plans for the state’s largest commercial biomass plant, which was expected to burn nearly a ton of wood a minute and emit large amounts of fine particulate matter, and other harmful pollutants.
Noting the “strong opposition” from residents in Springfield, which has among the nation’s highest rates of asthma, environmental regulators said their decision was based on a “heightened focus on environmental and health impacts on environmental justice populations from sources of pollution.”
The link between environmental factors and heightened risk to the coronavirus also played a role in their decision.
“With COVID-19 rates particularly high in Springfield, there is increased concern, given multiple studies establishing a relationship between low-income and minority communities with elevated air pollution levels and increased severity of disease and/or mortality,” wrote Michael Gorski, director of the department’s offices in Western Massachusetts.
Officials at Palmer Renewable Energy, which proposed building the 42-megawatt incinerator, did not respond to requests for comment.
Local residents and environmental advocates, who have lobbied against the plant for years, cheered the decision.
“For too long communities like ours have been targeted by out-of-town developers seeking to get rich at the expense of the public health and environment of our children, seniors, and all residents, leading to generations of concentrated pollution and health and environmental inequities,” said Jesse Lederman, a city councilor and outspoken critic of the plant who chairs the city’s sustainability and environment committee. “The days of polluters being rubber-stamped in communities like ours are over.”
Laura Haight, policy director for the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a Pelham-based advocacy group that opposes biomass, called the state’s decision “a huge victory” for environmental justice.
“Hopefully this will be the final nail in the coffin for this ‘zombie’ plant,” she said, noting that it had been in the planning stages for more than a decade. She said provisions in the state’s new climate law, which Governor Charlie Baker signed last month, made it unlikely that the developer could find another way to build the plant.
“Even if Palmer were to reapply for their permit, it is unlikely it would be approved due to the provisions … that are intended to protect environmental justice communities from just this type of polluting facility,” she said.
In an interview with the Globe two years ago, Victor Gatto Jr., Palmer’s founder, said the company had already broken ground on the project, which he had estimated would cost about $150 million.
“The plant will be built,” he vowed.
Despite local protests and opposition from nearly all city councilors, the plant’s prospects were given a boost in 2019 when the Baker administration proposed altering rules that designate woody biomass as a form of renewable energy. The draft rules would make developers eligible for valuable financial incentives, and would have potentially saved Palmer millions of dollars a year.
The revised rules, which are set to be released soon, are supported by the logging industry, which seeks to promote woody biomass, a fuel derived from wood chips and pellets made from tree trunks, branches, sawdust, and other plant matter. The fuel is used to heat homes and other buildings.
Environmental advocates oppose the rule changes for biomass, saying they would increase carbon emissions, create more pollution in the form of soot, and lead to greater deforestation. Trees and plants grow by absorbing carbon dioxide; when they’re burned, they release the heat-trapping gas back into the atmosphere.
Supporters of biomass say it should be considered a form of renewable energy as long as the removed trees are regrown and producers of the pellets and other fuel sources use sustainable forestry practices.
State energy officials have described biomass as part of an effort to diversify the state’s energy portfolio, and that over time, the fuel shouldn’t increase carbon emissions, especially when used in place of fossil fuels. It’s unclear whether biomass will still be part of that portfolio under the new climate law, which requires the state to effectively eliminate its carbon emissions by 2050.
In a statement, Kathleen Theoharides, the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, also attributed the state’s decision to “public health and environmental justice concerns.”
In revoking the permit, Gorski cited a technical requirement that the plant maintain “continuous construction.” The developers failed to do so, after an initial air permit had been approved nine years ago, he said.
Palmer has 10 days to appeal the state’s decision.
In a joint statement, Senators Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren applauded the state for its decision, noting that nearly one in five residents of Springfield suffer from asthma.
“The revocation of the approval for the Palmer biomass plant is a victory for Springfield residents, the health of our communities, and our fight for a livable planet,” they said.