In a win for environmental justice and public health advocates, the state has delivered a major setback to a bitterly contested proposal to build a wood waste-burning power plant in Springfield.
The plant’s developer, Palmer Renewable Energy, had promoted its plan for a $150 million 35-megawatt facility as a climate friendly alternative to fossil fuels. But it received intense opposition from locals and environmental justice advocates who said it would spew soot and toxic pollution that could aggravate health problems in nearby poor communities while also warming the climate.
In its November 28 ruling, the Massachusetts Office of Appeals and Dispute Resolution upheld a decision last year by the state’s Environmental Protection Department to revoke a key permit it had issued the plant a decade before.
The appeals office said “recent societal context and heightened focus on Environmental Justice” played a role in the decision and noted that both the 2021 Massachusetts Climate Roadmap law and a 2021 update to the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs’ Environmental Justice policy mandated increased protections for low-income communities of color, which tend to be disproportionately impacted by pollution.
“Burning wood for electricity is a bad idea to begin with, and building a biomass plant in a residential neighborhood is just evil,” said Johannes Epke, an attorney at environmental nonprofit Conservation Law Foundation, an opponent of the plant. “The Department of Environmental Protection was right to revoke this permit the first time around, and the appeals office has made the right call today.”
Biomass — fuels derived from wood products and other plant material — for years enjoyed state classification as a climate-friendly alternative to fossil fuel and was eligible for state clean energy subsidies.
After being proposed in 2008, the Palmer plant obtained local and state permits, and in 2012, the Department of Environmental Protection granted its final air permit. It was slated to become Massachusetts’ sole large-scale biomass facility, burning some 1,200 tons of waste wood per day.
But since the plant’s proposal, the tides have turned for biomass in Massachusetts. In 2010, amid public pressure, officials commissioned an independent study on the fuel; it concluded that biomass “generally emits more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels per unit of energy produced.”
Since then, Massachusetts has adopted stricter rules around subsidies for biomass facilities. In August, the Legislature passed a major climate bill that will remove wood-burning power plants from the state’s renewable portfolio standard, leaving only a small number of pre-existing facilities eligible for state clean energy subsidies.
Meanwhile, opponents of the proposed Springfield plant noted that the soot from burning wood has been linked to asthma, heart disease, and respiratory issues. They pointed to surrounding communities already suffering health effects.
Springfield is home to more than 100 census blocks that meet the state’s official definition of an Environmental Justice Community, based on income level, race, and level of English proficiency. The city has notoriously poor air quality: In 2019, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America found it had the highest asthma prevalence and number of asthma-related emergency room visits of any city in the country.
Responding to the criticism, Vic Gatto, an executive at Palmer Renewable Energy, argued in an editorial published by Mass Live last year that the project would be equipped with stringent air pollution and emissions controls. And he said that since the plant would have burned wood waste — the by-product from the manufacturing of wood products — it wouldn’t contribute to deforestation, and would instead ensure wood chips weren’t left on the forest floor to emit greenhouse gas as they decompose.
Opponents, for their part, say there are more sustainable ways to dispose of wood waste and say that research shows even the most advanced biomass plants emit toxic pollution.
Palmer has until Wednesday December 7 — seven business days from the date of last week’s new decision — to request the appeals office to reconsider. As of Monday December 5, they haven’t done so. The company can also apply for a new air permit from MassDEP.
“We certainly hope the company will pack its bags and leave town. However, the developers have a very litigious history,” said Laura Haight, policy director at Partnership for Policy Integrity, an environmental nonprofit that opposes biomass. “This could potentially drag on for years.”
Conservation Law Foundation is also representing the Springfield City Council in a separate court case in the Massachusetts Land Court to uphold the revocation of other permits for the plant. The developer has appealed, and advocates are still awaiting a decision.
Though it doesn’t shut the door on the plant’s construction, the decision marks the latest sign that public opinion — and policy — regarding biomass is changing across the state.
“There’s been a full 180 degree turn from where the Commonwealth started when the plant was first proposed,” said Springfield City Council President Jesse Lederman, who has opposed the plant for a decade.