Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 12.24.09

Flawed Biomass Permit
Critical errors demand community input 
By Lisa Arkin & Josh Vincent

To borrow a phrase from Eugene Weekly (Slant 12/4/09), nonprofit public advocacy group Oregon Toxics Alliance is “nipping at the heels” of lumber giant Seneca Sawmill by filing a Contest Case Hearing appeal. OTA’s appeal challenges the air pollution permit issued for the company’s biomass plant. 

Why is the little “David” of a nonprofit going up against the “Goliath” of corporate timber? Our country’s laws guarantee the public’s right to ask for a review of agency rules. Seeking due process is all the more important when a number of ramifications may be set into motion by approving the biomass plant in Eugene. 

Problems with pollution were apparent from the beginning of the process. OTA, following EPA guidelines, reached out to LRAPA and Seneca as early as July to ask for a timely stakeholders’ process. The goal was to get key issues, primarily community health, on the table. Seneca refused to participate; LRAPA called in legal counsel to nullify a board vote that would have supported this option. After the permit was issued, OTA asked for the internal administrative review. Seneca countered with a bevy of lawyers to “help” LRAPA interpret their own rules. By denying the OTA’s request for review, the LRAPA Board delivered a strong message that the agency considers itself insulated and exempt from public inquiry.  

LRAPA’s rejection of OTA’s appeal can be taken to mean several important things. Not the least, the agency appears unable to stand for air quality and public health when pressured by powerful interests seeking commercial gains. Seneca was very influential in setting the conditions of their own pollution permit, as admitted by LRAPA staff in a briefing to the Board. 

Second, in refusing to hear the appeal, LRAPA sidestepped specific issues that matter most to the public; namely, that the facility will not be required to reduce its pollution as much as it could by using better technology. Installing the best equipment serves the public interest because reductions in pollution safeguard community health and protect the quality of our air. 

Third, the truth is that biomass is not a clean energy technology. The industrial scale incineration of forest products produces significant quantities of pollutants that cause cancer, heart disease and respiratory illness. Medical research proves that breathing toxic pollutants shortens lives, whether it is from field burning, cigarette smoke or biomass incineration. 

OTA, along with health organizations like the Massachusetts Medical Society, is alerting the public to the relationship between toxic emissions from biomass and life-threatening disease. Citing the unacceptable risk to the public’s health, the Medical Society recently approved a policy urging Massachusetts state government to minimize the approval and construction of new biomass plants. 

Another ramification of biomass combustion is that it emits large amounts of climate-altering carbon. Biomass has thus far enjoyed a reputation as “carbon neutral.” However, this assumption is now being questioned by scientists and energy analysts. Cutting trees reduces our capacity to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere and burning trees actually releases carbon back into the atmosphere at an expeditious rate. Part of the carbon equation should also include CO2 added to the atmosphere when truckloads of slash is hauled from forests to the energy facilities. 

Recognizing the flawed assumption of carbon neutrality is making headlines. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) along with scientists from Princeton, Duke, and UC Berkeley published their new thinking in “Fixing a Critical Climate Accounting Error,” (Science Magazine 10/23/09). 

Due to increasing concerns about biomass, greenhouse gases and pollution, the state of Massachusetts has suspended its consideration of all biomass energy applications for qualification under the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio. Instead, Massachusetts will undertake a study to determine whether biomass incineration is a sustainable energy source. 

OTA’s objective is the adoption of a justifiable Oregon energy policy. This can be no less than a policy founded on values of public and environmental health, energy conservation and efficiency, and comprehensive carbon assessments.

While it is gilded with eco-friendly adjectives, the proliferation of industrial biomass operations represents a direct threat to a state like Oregon, which stands to gain so much from the pursuit of real renewable energy solutions and conservation, and which stands to lose so much from increased toxic pollution, tax credit giveaways and the improper management of its forests. It is up to us to look beyond the seductive language that flows from industries, agencies and politicians who are thinking in the short term. 

Lisa Arkin is executive director and Josh Vincent oversees community outreach for the Eugene-based Oregon Toxics Alliance,