I spent my January assisting Arise for Social Justice, an anti-poverty community organization headquartered in Springfield. I found myself thrown headfirst into an issue that these locals have been involved in for more than two years. Before this year, I had no idea that biomass was being considered as an “alternative” energy source for the Pioneer Valley. I had already been introduced to the term “biomass” through my studies of environmental science, but I didn’t know that it was manifesting itself in our own backyard.
Biomass refers to the process of burning organic matter as a form of fuel. This organic matter can range from trees to food crops to human generated refuse. Palmer Paving Corporation, which already operates a cement plant in Springfield, has sought permitting to build a biomass plant at their existing site. This plant would have been operated by Palmer Renewable Energy, a subdivision of a partnership between PPC and Barletta Engineering. The PRE plant would have bçeen one among two others constructed in the Valley, at sites in Greenfield and Russell. These rural sites would not be operated by PPC, and were intended to burn wood chips and other material from the timber industry. The plant in Springfield was intended to burn garbage, along with construction and demolition debris (CDD).
When I first became involved with Arise, they were fresh from a victory at the state level. Thanks to effective organizing in the three potentially impacted cities, public outcry forced Deval Patrick to take notice of the unpopularity, lack of transparency, and public concern undermining governmental support of biomass. The Massachusetts state government passed a one year moratorium on biomass permitting, in order to pursue health and environmental impact reports in greater detail.
Arise invested itself in stopping biomass from gaining a foothold in the Valley for several reasons, all of which have complex ramifications:
- By some calculations, the voracious appetites of the power plants would require more wood per year to function than the state of Massachusetts can support in a sustainable way. This prediction has sparked fears of clear-cutting, which contributes to the degradation of water resources and soil quality.
- The Springfield biomass plant presents a glaring environmental justice issue. Environmental justice and social justice are essentially one and the same, with environmental justice emphasizing issues such as the burden of health impacts on a community. The fact that only the Springfield plant was permitted to burn CDD and garbage literally reeks of racism. Springfield is an impoverished community that largely lacks the resources to fight environmental injustice. PRE conveniently solved their location dilemma. Predictably, the plant was placed in the neighborhood with the lease ability to fight back. Fortunately, the people of Springfield proved them wrong. Burning demolition debris and garbage in a dense urban neighborhood and calling it a potential solution to anything, can only be meant to disenfranchise the poor.
- The PRE plant is poised to further pollute the air in the Pioneer Valley. Not only does CDD contain chemicals (like arsenic, considered to be a Hazardous Air Pollutants by the EPA) used in the building materials of demolished structures, but biomass actually emits more CO2 than does coal. That’s right, this “green” technology will create a 1.86% increase in the CO2 emitted annually by all power plants in Massachusetts, while only contributing 0.28% more power for the state. The policy term for that is “Epic Fail.” The plant will also contribute emissions of volatile organic compounds and different
types of nitrogen oxide. These chemicals interact with sunlight to make smog, the brown stuff that chokes Los Angeles.
Clearly, public health, the environment and social-justice only serve as general categories for many more complex and highly personal issues for the residents of Springfield. In my view, the issue lies most heavily in the perception of biomass as a “sustainable” or renewable energy option. Advertising positions biomass as both renewable and carbon-neutral. This means that there would be no net gain of carbon emitted in the process of using organic material to create electricity. This neutrality would be achieved by planting trees as others are cut down to be used for fuel. Because trees absorb CO2 as they grow (and would emit CO2 as they decompose, anyway), biomass proponents argue that the emission/absorption cycle would remain a closed system.
There are three glaring holes in this argument. The first is that mature trees may absorb much more carbon than young ones are able to. If this is true and mature trees are rapidly harvested, it will not matter how many young ones are planted. There will still be a net gain in CO2 emissions. The second is that an energy source that doesn’t use hydrocarbons but continues to emit greenhouse gases is still contributing to climate change. It is not “alternative” to emit the same pollution as our three mainstream energy sources. The third is that biomass plants are not economically sustainable. The three proposed for the Valley are receiving heavy subsidies from the state level, as well as money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (yes, that big one Obama signed last fall).
It worries me that biomass is being considered as a viable way for Massachusetts to meet its renewable portfolio standards (RPS), and describe itself as “alternative.” If too much emphasis is placed on the development of biomass, it will undoubtedly come at the cost of other options (wind, solar), and the development of what is currently considered to be fringe technology (wave power, algae). Yes, trees are a renewable resource; they’ll always grow back. But burning wood, not to mention CDD and garbage, will not help us to protect the air we breath and it will not help inspire hope that the United States is able to make choices that are good for all.
I included some reference websites as both an informal bibliography and sources for further reading. If you are interested in becoming involved with Arise for Social Justice, go to the first website listed. If you are interested in becoming involved with the national campaign to stop biomass incinerators, go to the second website listed. The Youtube video listed is a link to the interviews that I helped conduct. The production is amateur, but the people involved have interesting things to say.
Arise for Social Justice
No Biomass Burning
Palmer Paving Corporation
Mass Forest Watch
The Springfield Institute
U.S. Forest Service
Renewable Portfolio Standards