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State bans biomass power plants near environmental justice communities from qualifying for state incentives

After years of protests against plans to build a wood-burning power plant in Springfield, state officials Friday issued new rules that would prohibit biomass facilities from qualifying for valuable financial incentives if they’re built within 5 miles of a low-income area known as an environmental justice community.

State officials also announced that all new biomass plants would have to become more efficient to qualify for those incentives, known as renewable energy credits.

The move — a reversal from draft rules released late last year — likely ends a decade-long effort to build the biomass plant in Springfield, an environmental justice community known as the nation’s asthma capital.

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State officials said they changed the rules after “overwhelming” criticism from environmental advocates and residents of Springfield and other communities who have long been afflicted by poverty, racism, and health disparities.

“They spoke clearly, and the administration heard their concerns about the negative impact these regulations could have for environmental justice communities,” said Kathleen Theoharides, the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, in a briefing to reporters Friday morning.

The new rules come two weeks after the state Department of Environmental Protection revoked a critical air permit for the 42-megawatt plant that Palmer Renewable Energy proposed to build in Springfield, which opponents said would pollute the city and contribute to climate change.

State officials had cited potential adverse health impacts in rejecting the plant’s permit. If built, it would have been the state’s largest commercial biomass plant, burning nearly a ton of wood a minute and emitting large amounts of fine particulate matter and other harmful pollutants.

Palmer officials, who are appealing the DEP’s decision, did not respond to requests for comment.

Springfield residents applauded the change in the regulations, while noting that the previous rule would likely have saved Palmer millions of dollars.

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“The days of polluters being rubber stamped, and financed by our own tax dollars, in communities like ours are over,” said Jesse Lederman, a city councilor and outspoken critic of the plant who chairs the city’s sustainability and environment committee.

He said the state was finally acknowledging the science about burning wood for energy. “Biomass incineration is not renewable energy,” he said.

The previously drafted rules were supported by the logging industry, which has sought to promote 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.

Supporters of biomass say it should be considered a form of renewable energy as long as the removed trees are replaced and producers of the pellets and other fuel sources use sustainable forestry practices.

Environmental advocates oppose biomass, saying the plants 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.

“The emissions are the same or greater than burning coal,” said William Moomaw, a retired professor of environmental policy at Tufts University. “There is no need for this technology, since electricity is produced without any emissions from cheaper solar and wind.”

The new rules require all biomass plants built since the end of last year to be 60 percent efficient, regardless of the type of wood they burn for energy. Such plants produce electricity and recover the energy lost in the generating process for heating or cooling. The Palmer plant would have been only about 30 percent efficient.

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Environmental advocates, however, raised concerns that the new rules don’t apply to existing biomass plants. There are two biomass facilities now operating in Massachusetts, in Dalton and Northampton, both of which are eligible for the state’s financial incentives. Others in New England may be eligible as well.

The new rules open a “big loophole” for more biomass plants qualifying for the incentives, said Laura Haight, policy director for the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a Pelham-based advocacy group that opposes biomass.

“We will be fighting this,” she said. “Biomass plants anywhere release pollution and harm the climate, and should not be propped up by ratepayer incentives that would otherwise go to clean renewables like wind and solar.”

State officials, however, said the new rules were unlikely to lead to a significant increase in power generated by existing biomass plants, or finance new ones.

“We maintain the position that biomass is not carbon neutral, and that we need sustainable forestry,” said Patrick Woodcock, commissioner of the state’s Department of Energy Resources.

He said the overall goal of the new rules was to reduce pollution in historically polluted communities.

“DOER is reviewing our past and future programs and policies with a critical eye to ensure that those who have been marginalized in the past … do not continue to disproportionately bear the burden of climate change and underlying air quality conditions,” he said.

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David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him @davabel.