Josh Schlossberg: Not a great model for biomass

Posted by erauch, March 30, 2011

As a resident of Vermont studying the impacts of the McNeil biomass power incinerator in Burlington, VT, I was surprised to hear former Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan holding up McNeil as a “model” for a 100-megawatt incinerator proposed for Gainesville.  Her quote that McNeil has “operated successfully, and helped sustain healthy forests in that part of Vermont, for over two decades,” makes me curious upon what evidence she bases her praise.  

Biomass power incinerators, such as McNeil and the other 255 facilities operating in the US, have considerable impacts on not only forests, but also public health, greenhouse gas emissions, and our nation’s transition to a genuinely clean (non-smokestack) renewable energy future—major issues that Ms. Hanrahan ignores.

Let’s start with public health: According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent National Emissions Inventory Database, McNeil incinerator’s smokestack emits 75 different air pollutants, including dioxin, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, chlorine, heavy metals, and particulate matter (PM) 2.5—the latter, an unfilterable pollutant so small it can lodge deep in the lungs, bloodstream, and internal organs, to which American Cancer Society studies demonstrate there is no safe level of exposure.

A 2000 report by Vermont Sierra Club, “Impacts of McNeil Station,” documented a slew of complaints from nearby residents over the years, including “nauseating stack emissions,” “fugitive dust emissions,” “pungent odors,” spontaneous combustion of wood chip piles, potential groundwater contamination from wood chip leachate (including toxic pollutants), and “disturbing noise and vibrations.” 

Aside from PM 2.5, residents complained of “fugitive dust emissions” getting inside their homes and cars, coating their yards, and according to one resident, collecting in the ears of her child. There have also been several reports of asthma cases clearing up as soon as residents move out of the area.  The “Impacts” report called for additional testing of particulate matter, which to our knowledge, has not been conducted. Calls for groundwater testing have similarly been ignored.

As Japan endures the tragedy of the Fukushima nuclear reactor and the west coast of the US worries about radioactive plumes drifting across the Pacific, it’s worth noting that one of the radioactive isotopes posing such a threat, Cesium-137, is being constantly emitted from the smokestacks of biomass incinerators while concentrating in its ash, according to public health scientist, former nuclear plant operator, and radiological engineer Stewart Farber of Connecticut. The Cesium had been absorbed by trees following open-air testing of nuclear bombs in the 50’s and 60’s.

In a June 2009 letter to the Greenfield, Mass. Zoning Board regarding a proposed biomass power incinerator, Farber urges that any corporation looking to build a biomass incinerator “make a basic set of measurements to assess the radioactivity content of the wood which will be used to feed the boilers, of the Cs-137 which might be released in the stack gas emissions once the facility begins operation, and which will be present in the thousands of tons of  bottom and fly ash.”

While the levels of Cesium-137 from biomass incineration are certainly nowhere near what is being released from the Fukushima reactor, currently neither the smokestack emissions nor the ash of the McNeil incinerator are tested. 

Now, onto forests: McNeil requires roughly 400,000 green tons of wood per year, cut not only from the forests of Vermont, but also within a 300-mile radius covering New York, Massachusetts, Quebec and New Hampshire—including from clearcuts up to 25 acres (football fields) in size.  Complicating matters, McNeil also burns natural gas—yet if the 50-megawatt facility were fueled by 100% wood (as many biomass incinerators are), it would require the annual equivalent of 9,000 clearcut acres of forests, or 25 acres of clearcuts a day (13,000 green tons/megawatt).  Go ahead and double that for Gainesville’s proposed incinerator.

The levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the form of CO2 released from a 50-megawatt incinerator’s smokestack is roughly 650,000 tons per year (1 green ton of wood=1 ton of CO2) , the same as over 100,000 new cars added to the road, according to the EPA.  Again, double this for Gainesville—the same as every single city resident (man, woman, and child) driving around two additional brand new cars all year.

Before Ms. Hanrahan endorses a biomass power incinerator such as Vermont’s McNeil facility as a model for Gainesville, I would respectfully suggest she first cite some data as to the actual impacts on public health, climate and forests.  If studies aren’t available, I hope she’d take that uncertainty into account before offering up Gainesville residents as guinea pigs in the risky science experiment known as biomass power incineration.


Pegeen Hanrahan’s column can be read via

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