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Markey Grabs a Shovel to Help Bury Zombie Biomass Project…

UPDATED 2/22/21 10:09AM: To include a statement from DEP and to include comments from Sen. Warren’s office.

Hey, senator! Did you hear the one about how burning plants is clean energy? (WMP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—United States Senator Ed Markey joined opponents of the ever-undead proposal to build a biomass power plant here to voice his support for stopping the project once and for all. Speaking alongside community activists and local officials, Markey, a lead co-sponsor of the Green New Deal and one of the leading environmental voices in Congress, all but excommunicated the burning of biomatter from the church of clean energy.

Markey’s visit did not coincide with any specific stage in the proposal’s 13-year saga. Councilors and activists are resisting the developers’ attempt to begin work despite their building permit’s ostensible expiry. A more immediate concern are state renewable tax credits. They underpin the economics of a plant that could contribute to already poor quality of Springfield’s air.

“Historically, there has been an attempt to sell biomass as an energy source, which is clean and safe. The reality is that biomass contributes to an increase in the dangerous greenhouse gases that have led to the warming of our planet,” Markey said.

“By attempting to put a biomass plant here in a city, that is the asthma capital of the United States, it not only will increase the risk of climate change, but also increase the risk of asthma,” he continued.

The senator observed two years had passed since he and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed the Green New Deal. While Joe Biden did not adopt it last year, the goals it sets out to arrest climate change remain influential.

Amid light snow and brittle temperatures, opponents gathered across from the Page Boulevard plot where the plant would go. The project’s history is long. It predates ward representation. At-large councilor Jesse Lederman got his start in activism opposing the plant while in high school.

Protesting biomass at City Hall in a time when the biggest airborne worry was soot. (WMP&I)

“We know Springfield is continually ranked the asthma capital of the nation and we just think that they continue to compound that type of pollution on top of pollution generation after generation is injustice,” he said.

Palmer Renewable Energy, whose owners also own Palmer Paving, proposed the plant over 10 years ago. In 2008, it raced through the all at-large City Council on a 7-2 vote. Ward representation returned the following year.

“We got on the council in 2010. This had already been approved,” said Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen, who took office that year. “Eight of us were new to the council and we got wind of this and we revoked the permit in May of 11,” he continued, referring to the new ward councilors.

Courts ultimately ruled the Council’s rescission was gratuitous—they technically found no Council-issued special permit was necessary. Still, the opposition of nearly all elected city officials, save Mayor Domenic Sarno, and legions of activists blunted momentum.

In a 2016 interview with WMP&I, then-Council President Michael Fenton, who attended Thursday’s press conference, noted that despite the ups and down in the legal system, the plant was still not under construction.

After the vote in 2008, PRE would find the odd vote of support on the Council even with ward representation. Yet in December, a resolution again opposing the plant passed, but without dissent.

The city has since adopted new zoning rules which, if the plant surfaced anew today, would require the Council to approve it, however blood unlikely. The debate about building permit validity centers on a state law that tolled all permits that were open during Great Recession. Opponents today argue even that extension has passed, killing the permit. PRE—and Sarno’s administration—claim construction work has happened, thus exhuming the project.

It’s a bird…it’s a plane…it’s a future Superfund site? (WMP&I)

Jacqueline Velez, an activist in the city, observed that she and her son had moved out of Brooklyn to find cleaner air. Despite its plenty trees, topography traps bad air in Springfield. The plant would only make it worse.

“I didn’t move from Brooklyn to come here to have to fight this,” she said.

If the project moves forward—and inevitably back to court—it will likely only be because of state policy.  Governor Charlie Baker’s administration is trying to deem biomass valid renewable energy.

“Our tax dollars are being used for something that’s killing us literally,” said Zumalee Delgado-Rivera of Neighbor 2 Neighbor. “And we really don’t want this. And so any support that you can help us with it will be just seriously appreciated.”

Fenton, who represents Ward 2, which lies only feet away from the project site, echoed that sentiment.

“We’ve been fighting it on a grassroots level on the ground in Springfield for the last decade,” he said. “And we’re just so thankful to have you here to help and support us in that fight on the federal level, as well as our state senators in the state delegation.”

Joining the councilors and activists were the city’s two state senators Adam Gomez, late of the City Council, and Eric Lesser. They have sponsored legislation to halt the Baker administration’s changes to renewable energy credits. Other legislation already working through Beacon Hill could make future biomass projects more difficult.

At issue now is a revision of what qualifies for renewable energy credits. WBUR reported last month that the Baker administration is proposing a waiver of all efficiency standards to plants like PRE’s.

Markey promised to help and plugged some of the health spending in President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill. The senator remarked on how COVID-19, a disease that principally attacks the respiratory system. The pandemic has only underscored the need for more attention to the quality of the air.

Sen. Warren being green in 2017.(WMassP&I)

The Malden Democrat agrees that the state should not be using renewable energy credit for biomass. As for what actions he was taking himself, he pointed to a letter he and Senator Elizabeth Warren sent Martin Suuberg, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. In it, the senators urge Suuberg to suspend PRE’s conditional plan approval pending any clean air revisions Biden’s administration pursues.

A Warren spokesperson noted that the letter also makes clear the Environmental Protection Agency approved Mass DEP’s air quality implementation plan. That and 2013 regulations give the state agency clearance to revoke the biomass plant’s state permit.

A spokesperson for the department did not immediately reply to a request for comment at posting time Friday. However, on Monday, a DEP spokesperson confirmed receipt of the senators’ letter.

“The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is reviewing the arguments raised in the letter and Palmer Renewable Energy’s compliance with permit requirements, and will be providing a written response to Senators Warren and Markey.” DEP spokesperson Ed Coletta said in a statement.

Markey also pointed to legislation he filed with Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush. It would assess and map out environmental injustices vulnerable communities face, not unlike Springfield and its biomass plant. Other examples could be refineries near poor neighborhoods.

As for whether he expected any investigations from Congress, Markey was noncommittal. He sits on the Senate’s Environment Committee, which Democrats now control.

“I would say, in general, it is time for our country to re-examine biomass as a promise that was made for decades that it actually would be a reduction in greenhouse gases,” he said.

Subsequent to this story’s posting, a spokesperson for Senator Warren told WMP&I that the Finance Committee, which she joined this session, has jurisdiction over tax breaks for biofuels.

During a virtual town hall this week, Warren confessed to thinking biomass was not that bad on first thought. They she read up on the science and the particulates it generates.

“I got to say on this one, Henry, I just go with the scientists,” she said, referring to the questioner. “And when they tell me that this is causing problems with air quality and what’s involved in the generation of power from it, then I have real concerns about it.”