Here is a good-news story I hadn’t expected to write.
For years, residents and activists have been fighting to stop a wood-burning power plant from being built in East Springfield. The company hoping to build the facility argued that, because it would be burning waste wood as fuel, the plant would be a cleaner way to generate power, using a renewable energy source: 1,200 tons of sawdust, tree-trimming offcuts, and other wood waste per day.
And it looked like the state was going to agree with them, suggesting the plant might qualify for millions of dollars in renewable energy subsidies each year, subsidies that would help make the wood-burning plant profitable.
I had been following this march to the seemingly inevitable, my concern evolving toward fury. So this was going to be a column about why allowing this thing would have been a terrible idea. It was going to point out how messed up it is that the people of East Springfield — who have already suffered enough at the intersection of several major highways, contaminated sites, and industrial facilities — have to fight yet another polluting plant that would help cement their its status as the nation’s asthma capital.
I’d spoken to experts who explained how burning wood to generate electricity isn’t really any cleaner than burning gas, especially when you factor in the trucks rumbling through the neighborhood carrying 1,200 tons of wood a day from who knows how far away. How burning wood sends smoke and harmful pollutants and particulate matter into the air and into people’s lungs, worsening respiratory ailments. How they were skeptical of claims that the plant could run purely on waste wood, and that, to keep operating, it would have to use actual trees, which are vital to cleaner air.
I was going to write about how we keep dumping our back-of-house operations in communities that seem powerless to protect themselves — places like Chelsea, East Boston, Saugus, Revere, and Springfield, where there are more low-income residents and people of color. And about how all the talk of environmental justice means nothing if we allow a plant like this one to happen.
“We view some of our communities as sacrifice zones,” Andrea Nyamekye, co-director of the grass-roots organizing group Neighbor To Neighbor, had told me.
Forces marshaled to prevent yet another sacrifice in Springfield. Environmental advocates and some city officials sued to stop the project. Elected officials, including state Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow and both our US senators, vowed to prevent it.
“Building a plant that would be billowing thousands of pounds of smoke into the air in a residential community in the asthma capital of the country is outrageous,” Lesser said last week. “Massachusetts ratepayers should not be subsidizing it.”
But we’ve seen fight like this before, to no avail.
Then, late on Friday afternoon, something amazing happened: The Department of Environmental Protection revoked its approval of the Springfield biomass-fired power plant, citing an overlong interruption in its construction. To the surprise and delight of those fighting it, the DEP also cited the “heightened focus on environmental and health impacts on environmental justice populations from sources of pollution.”
The developer, Palmer Renewable Energy, has 10 days to appeal the DEP ruling, but advocates say the state has struck a fatal blow here.
It is a massive victory. And there may be another to come. When I spoke to state officials earlier in the week, they told me they were listening to those who were asking them not to include wood-burning among the forms of renewable energy eligible for state subsidies.
“We are going to be proposing changes based on that feedback,” an official said. “Especially related to impacts on environmental justice communities.”
That certainly sounds hopeful. In the unlikely event that revoking the air permit doesn’t kill the Palmer plant, withholding state subsidies that would make it profitable probably would.
In any case, this is a huge and spectacular affirmation for folks who have had precious few of them through the decades. The question now: Is Springfield’s unlikely victory a one-off, or is the tide actually turning?
We can dream.