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Briefings: Pols, Activists Mark a Triumph in Nigh-Eternal Battle against Biomass…

Springfield Biomass

Councilor Lederman with colleagues, biomass opponents, and classic anti-biomass props, a papier mache smokestack & inhaler. (WMP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—City Councilors, state legislators, community activists and a United States Senator took a victory lap at City Hall after the state cut off the air for the ever-lingering biomass project. On Friday, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection pulled the air quality permit Palmer Renewable Energy had secured for the power plant the company hoped to build. The DEP said inaction on the developer’s part allowed the agency to take a second look.

After more than a decade of court battles, delays and policy changes, the plant kept crawling out of the grave. The air quality permit was one of the few things sustain the plant. While further litigation remains possible, the rescission has become perhaps the most significant roadblock to the project. Opponents took the opportunity to recognize the achievement and remember those who did not live to see it.

“Your advocacy, your relentless fight will save lives here in Springfield,” Senator Ed Markey said on the steps of City Hall Wednesday. “You made it clear that this dangerous project just will not be tolerated.”

Markey noted that there were ups and downs in the fight as did at-large City Councilor Jesse Lederman, who emceed the speeches. Lederman had been battling the project since he was a teenager.

Councilors Timothy Allen, Melvin Edwards and Michael Fenton, all ward councilors, had battled the plant since taking office in 2010. Ward 1 Councilor Gumersindo Gomez and at-large Councilor Sean Curran, much newer members also attended.

Lederman said Council President Marcus Williams sent his regrets but feted the permit revocation, too.

Also at City Hall were State Senator Adam Gomez and activists with Arise Social for Social Justice and other organizations that had opposed the project from the beginning. Speakers excoriated the greed of the well-connected developers. They also thanked Gomez and his colleagues on Beacon Hill for pursuing legislation to keep biomass out of renewable energy programs.

“Our plan is to say no to corporate greed and to exploiting vulnerable communities,” said Jacquie Velez of the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition.

There were debatable claims about the role of campaign donations from the plant’s owners. The earliest Council biomass actions were slapdash and uncurious reflecting, at worst, no appreciation for the plant’s risk, not financial influence—at least not over a majority of councilors. The only no votes then came from an environmentally-minded councilor and the sole member who lived nearby. Later votes to sustain the project perhaps did reflect the influence of money, however.

Ed Markey

Post 1/6, police were unusually visible for a press conference. But those are councilors not Markey’s security detail. (WMP&I)

Now the plant is so politically toxic, Council votes against it are usually unanimous.

Other plant opponents could not be there. After the event, councilors mentioned E. Henry Twiggs, a councilor for Ward 4 who opposed biomass who died in 2019. Senator Gomez recalled Jafet Robles, the slain Neighbor 2 Neighbor organizer. However, late Michaelann Bewsee received her own tribute from her successor at Arise for Social Justice Tanisha Arena and Bewsee’s sister, Liz.

“Michaelann became passionate about the air and asthma, as her own illness continued to get worse over the last few years of her life,” Liz Bewsee said. “And she dragged everybody to any event to get her hands on about air quality, and fighting this biomass plant.”

She helped make it the preeminent social and environmental justice issue in the city.

“How many other social injustices are on the table that we have to have hard battles?” Arena said. “It’s time to take them off the table or flip the table.”

Other organizations represented were, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Partnership for Police Integrity, Community Action Works, and the Sunrise Movement. Many had been in the fight for a decade or more.

Most emphasized the importance of community organizing to oppose the project. After the project’s early approval, the Council moved to rescind the plant’s special permit. Litigation that ensued was not successful, but the project got bogged down in other reviews and opposition. Last December, Senators Markey and Elizabeth Warren penned a letter to DEP requesting the air quality permit’s suspension. Markey visited in February.

“You know, this is your victory. This is your victory,” said Kirstie Pecci of the Conservation Law Foundation. “The citizens here have done this, the residents here people who live here have done this.”