Biomass Health Study a Smokescreen?

– by Josh Schlossberg, January 2, 2013, The Biomass Monitor 

A study on the health risks from a biomass power incinerator proposed for Placer County, California contains “several fallacies,” according to Norma Kreilein, MD, a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

A Health Impact Assessment of the Proposed Cabin Creek Biomass Energy Facility in Placer County, California claims that the construction of the 2.2 megawatt Cabin Creek Biomass Energy Facility two miles from 16,000 resident Truckee will “likely benefit community health in the Lake Tahoe region,” despite emitting higher levels of particulate matter and other air pollutants per unit of energy than a coal-fired plant, the dirtiest fossil fuel. The nearest residence stands 1,500 feet from the facility.

On December 27, 2012, the Center for Biological Diversity appealed the Placer County Planning Commission’s decision to adopt the conditional use permit and certify the Environmental Impact Report for the Cabin Creek facility.

“The study has too many holes to be a foundation for a decision,” says Dr. Kreilein, a pediatrician who works with children and infants suffering from lung disease, based in Jasper, Indiana. “The direct health effects of the particulates on the local population are not assessed whatsoever.” Dr. Kreilein, along with other medical doctors and scientists traveled to Washington, DC in September 2012 for a Congressional briefing organized by Save America’s Forests to present on the negative health impacts of biomass incineration, including asthma and cancer.

The Health Impact Assessment acknowledges that “there will be project emissions which could exacerbate health issues in vulnerable population groups” and that residents who live in the area over the next seventy years could “expect an additional risk of 2.0 excess cancers per million people.” The study notes that biomass energy facilities emit “criteria air pollutants and air toxics,” such as asthma-causing particulate matter and nitrogen oxides and “55 toxic air pollutants including benzene, formaldehyde, acrolein, and nickel.”

According to the Cabin Creek Biomass Facility Project Draft Environmental Impact Report, the facility would emit up to 77.5 lbs per day of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), 77.7 lbs per day of nitrogen oxides (NOx), 29.5 lbs per day of particulate matter (PM)10 and 17.5 lbs per day of PM2.5 from its smokestack, from wood chipping, and from transportation. Smokestack emissions alone would account for 15.4 lbs per day of VOCs, 72 lbs per day of NOx, 14.4 lbs per day of PM10, and 14.4 lbs per day of PM2.5.

“Elderly, children, and people who suffer from asthma or other respiratory illnesses and heart disease are particularly susceptible to changes in air quality,” according to the Health Impact Assessment. The study reveals that “there are no long term studies that have examined the health impacts” of biomass facilities.

“I have never heard where fine particulates are good for anything but cancer,” said Kings Beach, California resident Danielle Hankinson. Kings Beach had previously been proposed as a possible site for the biomass facility until local residents voiced opposition.

In 2004, Placer County Air Pollution Control “amended Rule 225 to reduce particulate matter production from wood burning appliances” due to air pollution concerns. Truckee “residents and officials” have spoken of the “need to improve air quality, particularly during the winter months when wood burning stoves are in higher use.”

The study recommends creating a “communications plan” to “ease community anxieties regarding the facility,” especially during the winter when an inversion layer makes air pollution more noticeable. Other impacts include the inhalation of wood dust escaping from the facility or trucks bringing in wood, as well as “noise disturbance” and odor.

“Trucking biomass for incineration does not make sense, even outside of the health issue,” said Carina Cutler of King’s Beach.

The Health Impact Assessment claims that cutting 14,000-17,000 dry tons of wood per year from forests within thirty miles of the facility, including from the Tahoe and El Dorado National Forests, will “improve” regional air quality. The study argues that emissions from wood burning will be decreased because the wood fueling the facility would otherwise be burned in open slash piles in the forest following logging operations, including clearcuts. The tops and branches of trees contain their highest nutrient content and removing them from the forest to burn as biomass energy prevents these nutrients from returning to the soil.

The Health Impact Assessment also advocates for an increase in wildfire “fuels reduction” logging, which includes logging whole trees, sometimes from old growth forests. Forest advocates claim that “fuels reduction” is simply another name for commercial logging and ineffective at protecting homes or even reducing wildfire—which is a natural and essential component of western forest ecosystems.

“The latest research is suggesting that weather/climatic conditions, rather than fuels, drive large blazes,” wrote ecologist George Wuerthner in Fire Myths/Fire Realities. “Thinning programs are unlikely to work effectively in drought years. And since nearly all big blazes occur in drought years, these are the only fires that are worth worrying about.”

Logging forests can expose them to sunlight, drying them and making them more flammable. Logging can also open forests to wind, which can spread flames faster during wildfire.

Jack Cohen, research scientist at the Fire Sciences Laboratory at the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station states that “home ignitability, rather than wildland fuels, is the principal cause of home losses during wildland/urban interface fires. Key items are flammable roofing materials and the presence of burnable vegetation immediately adjacent to homes. Intense flame fronts (or crown fires) will not ignite wooden walls at distances greater than 40 meters or 130 feet.”

A Health Impact Assessment of the Proposed Cabin Creek Biomass Energy Facility in Placer County, California was conducted by the Sequoia Foundation which, according to its mission statement, “seeks to support the efforts of local, state, national—and international—public health agencies in promoting and implementing effective public health policy.”

The Sequoia Foundation received grant support for the report from the Health Impact Project which is a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was founded with money from the chemical company Johnson and Johnson. The Pew Charitable Trusts is a private foundation created by the children of Joseph and Mary Pew, the founder of Sun Oil (Sunoco).

In his 2004 article, How the Pew Charitable Trust is Smothering the Grassroots Environmental Movement, California environmental advocate Felice Pace wrote that Pew’s extensive funding of groups advocating for small parcels of wilderness—as opposed to wholesale public lands protection—did more harm than good. “In the 1970s and 1980s a vibrant, truly grassroots public land protection movement emerged–first in the West and then nation-wide. During the 1990s Pew, with support from other foundations, moved decisively to control this movement.” The end result of the Pew funding strategy, according to Pace, “may include [industrial] development of larger, more ecologically important natural areas.”

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