Is Newspaper Coverage of Biomass Energy Biased?

–  by Josh Schlossberg, March 19, 2012, The Biomass Monitor

Forty percent of Americans read print and online newspapers to get their news, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2011 State of the Media report. Down from fifty two percent in 2006, newspapers are still a major source of information for Americans making decisions about important issues like energy policy, public health, and the environment.

Two newspapers, the Gainesville Sun in Florida and the Rutland Herald in Vermont, have recently come under fire for giving readers a biased view of the issue of industrial-scale biomass energy.

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The Gainesville Sun has sporadically reported on a 100 megawatt biomass power incinerator currently under construction by Gainesville Regional Utilities. The massive power plant proposal has faced a barrage of bi-partisan criticism over the years, with concerns ranging from electric rate increases, to lack of transparency, to environmental racism, to air pollution, to environmental impacts.

Ron Cunningham, editorial page Editor for the Sun has consistently been accused by Gainesville biomass opponents of having a pro-biomass agenda. Cunningham has repeatedly kept anti-biomass letters to the editor from print versions of the newspaper, including letters by medical doctors explaining the health impacts of biomass energy. Cunningham has also refused to run other anti-biomass letters at all, print or online, particularly submissions by former Gainesville Mayor Tom Bussing.

Most recently, a deluge of irate readers responded to an election-night editorial by Cunningham soundly criticizing an anti-biomass candidate for City Council. The candidate, Nathan Skop, lost the election.

“As a registered Independent I have problems with the biomass plant on economic, logic, and political grounds,” responded Gainesville resident Jim Bryant. “Highest electric rates around, Cunningham? More rate raises to cover bonds to come, Cunningham? Why is it a campaign issue indeed? Surely you jest, Cunningham.”

Stafford Jones, Chair of the Alachua County Republican Party, wrote that Cunningham’s editorial “excoriated the entire anti-incinerator movement and the 49 percent of Gainesville voters who don’t approve of the biomass incinerator.”

“What the Sun readers got was a near black out of the news regarding the proposed incinerator combined with a few editorials in favor of it,” said Gainesville resident and biomass opponent Karen Orr. “The newspaper’s handling of the bio burner is pretty much the way they handle any local environmental issue that threatens the status quo, threatens the growth and development industry, threatens their advertisers, threatens the power of the local political machine.”

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In Vermont, newspaper coverage of two biomass power incinerator proposals for Fair Haven and Springfield has been limited and, in several instances, inaccurate, leaving many Vermonters ill-informed as to the impacts of biomass incineration on public health and the environment.

On Feb 23, 2012 Winstanley, developers of a 25-35 megawatt biomass power incinerator proposed for Springfield, Vermont, held a public information meeting for over two hundred local residents. During the Question and Answer segment, Springfield resident Maggie Kelly held up a chart demonstrating the levels of asthma-inducing particulate matter that would be emitted from the proposed biomass facility, asking the developers “Why would the citizens of Springfield allow the construction of a power plant that is dirtier in many respects than a coal plant?”

“Mt. Tom is actually a pretty good coal-firing plant…so it’s not so bad to be compared to Mt. Tom,” responded Winstanley consultant Dale Raczynski. “There’s an existing coal plant out there that has very low emissions. We’re being compared to that. And we have also very low emissions…”

The Rutland-Herald ran an article on the meeting the following day. Choosing not to quote the developer’s admission, reporter Susan Smallheer instead wrote that the developer had denied the chart’s data: “Raczynski said coal was not a source of renewable power, and that the woodchip plant’s emissions per megawatt were lower than the Mount Tom plant.”

The Herald article did not refer to any of the chart data—compiled by Massachusetts-based civil engineer Chris Matera, with numbers taken from Winstanley’s own air permit application—which demonstrated that the proposed biomass facility would emit 0.23 pounds per megawatt hour of particulate matter compared to the coal plant’s 0.05 pounds per megawatt hour, an increase of 385 percent.

Rutland, where the Herald offices are based, has the highest percentage of asthma cases of any city in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  Rutland is roughly 15 miles east, as the crow flies, from the future site of a 29.5 megawatt biomass power incinerator and wood pellet plant proposed by Beaver Wood Energy/Bechtel.

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Sixty nine percent of Americans believe the disappearance of their local newspaper would have a “minor impact” or “no impact” on their ability to keep abreast of local news, according to the 2011 State of the Media report.

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