[EXCLUSIVE] Is Biomass Heating Safe for Schools?

– by Josh Schlossberg, The Biomass Monitor

Four school districts in western Massachusetts plan to switch out existing oil or propane heating systems for wood pellets, despite red flags raised by public health advocates.

Currently, biomass heating in New England is more economical than propane, slightly more expensive than fuel oil # 2, and several times more costly than natural gas.

As of May, the average cost of propane per million BTU in New Hampshire is $28.32 ($2.59/gallon), with wood pellets at $15.65 ($258/ton), fuel oil #2 at $13.95 ($1.93/gallon), and natural gas at $8.62 ($.86/therm), according to the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning.

The Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs doesn’t publish BTU calculations, however rates for propane are slightly higher than in New Hampshire ($2.75/gallon), nearly the same for wood pellets ($260/ton), and fuel oil a bit higher ($2.18/gallon), with the biggest difference being natural gas, at one-third the cost ($.25/therm).

To help defray the expense of “renewable thermal heating and cooling upgrades,” the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) offers Schools and Public Housing Integrating Renewables and Efficiency (SAPHIRE) grants.

This year, the Sanderson Academy Elementary School in Ashfield received a $171,598 SAPHIRE grant to replace its oil heating system with wood pellets. Last year, the Hawlemont Elementary School in Charlemont and Heath Elementary School received a total of $355,375 to switch to wood pellets.

Other recipients of SAPHIRE grants for switching from oil to biomass heating include the Mount Everett Regional High School and Undermountain Elementary in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, Overlook Middle School in the Ashburnham-Westminster Regional School District, Petersham Central Elementary School in the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School District, and the Berlin Memorial Elementary School in the Berlin-Boylston Regional School District.

But economics isn’t the only topic relevant to biomass heating at schools. The American Lung Association, the Buckland County Board of Health, and local advocates are worried about schoolchildren’s exposure to air pollution from wood heating systems.

In March, the American Lung Association of the Northeast, based in East Hartford, Connecticut, sent letters to the R.C. Mahar, Mohawk Trail, Hawlemont, and Mohawk school districts, warning about the health risks of installing wood pellet boilers. The letter, signed by Casey Harvell, Director of Public Policy, asks school officials to “consider the harmful health impacts for children and school staff.”

A study referenced by the letter, published in Inhalation Toxicology in 2007, found that “woodsmoke contains thousands of chemicals, many of which have well-documented adverse human health effects.” Air pollutants mentioned by the Lung Association include “harmful particle pollution, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide.”

In 2013, the World Health Organization determined particulate matter to be carcinogenic, and concluded “there is no evidence of a safe level of exposure or a threshold below which no adverse health effects occur.”

The Lung Association cautions that “youth, elderly, and those with pre-existing respiratory diseases like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are a greater risk” from pellet heating, while noting Massachusetts’ high asthma rates, tied for fourth place in the U.S. along with Oregon, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Charlie Niebling is a partner with Innovative Natural Resource Solutions LLC, a Concord, New Hampshire-based firm that consults with clients on renewable energy. He says while solid fuels such as pellets can emit more particulate matter than liquid fuels or gas, “modern pellet boiler technology combusts very cleanly and efficiently.”

“Every form of energy we use comes with choices about environmental impacts, and nearly every essential function in modern society generates particulate emissions,” says Niebling, including agriculture, the transportation sector, and manufacturing.

However, as long as a facility is “properly sited, installed and operated,” says Niebling, “I don’t think there is any demonstrable public health concern.”

Niebling suggests that those concerned about particulates “would be far better served devoting all their attention to helping homeowners replace old, inefficient wood stoves with modern wood, wood pellet or wood chip technology.”

When asked about alternatives to biomass heating, Harvell responded via email that the Lung Association supports “cleaner energy including solar and ground source heat pumps.”

The American Lung Association isn’t alone in its concerns. On March 7, the Town of Buckland Board of Health also sent a letter to the Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont Regional School Districts, saying it “strongly opposes” the biomass heating proposals.

The Board was left “doubting the truthfulness” of the Mohawk Trail Regional School Biomass Boiler & Solar PV Study used to justify the facility, conducted by BEAM Engineering, and contested the study’s claim that biomass is a “cleaner burning fuel than propane.”

The Board asserted that “numerous studies have shown serious impacts to children from increasing levels of particulate matter air pollution, effects that result in permanent life-long impacts.”

While Sanderson Academy is shooting to have its pellet system installed by winter, the Mohawk High School is installing an updated propane system rather than making the switch to biomass. The decision was based on economics, not public health, according to a school official, as reported by the Greenfield Recorder.

Biomass opponent Janet Sinclair, founding member of Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, sees a bigger picture in regards to the expansion of wood pellet heating in Massachusetts. She points to the Mohawk Trail Woodland Partnership, a state proposal to designate a twenty-one town area in western Massachusetts as federal lands, with a goal to “increase sustainable forestry practices and support energy efficient renewable wood heat.”

The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources provided $350,000 to study the expansion of wood pellet heating in the state, along with the feasibility of a wood pellet facility.

While supportive of an increase in biomass heating, the Mohawk Trail Woodland Partnership acknowledges that “smoke from wood burning can be a significant contributor to air pollution and can pose a public health risk,” and that “emissions from wood burning systems typically are higher than fossil fuel heating systems,” though installing filters can reduce these emissions.

As familiar with biomass emissions as anyone in the region, Charlie Niebling thinks critics’ worries are exaggerated, saying “opponents’ angst over use of locally produced heating fuels instead of imported heating oil, propane, or natural gas is misplaced and far out of proportion to the true comparative risk and the impacts they allege.”

2 comments

  • Burning biomass at a school brings to mind the updated version of Hanlon’s razor:

    Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity or carelessness, but don’t rule out malice.

    I have a few thoughts and questions to add to the discussion:

    Biomass burning on school grounds is going to give a whole new meaning to recess.

    I assume, tongue in cheek, that there would be on site monitors to allow school officials to protect kids from breathing nanoparticles, dioxins, furans, small particulate matter, NOx and SOx, etc. that will, by necessity, be emitted from smokestacks at the school sites?

    Will the schools be burning tree pellets or also waste wood? Will the wood be checked for arsenic or materials that emit nano particles when burned?

    Will emissions be checked on a real time and continuous basis for toxic emissions so that an alarm would be sounded when the playground air is toxic and unsafe?

    Will there be an alert system and protocol to protect children and teachers, etc. during boiler start ups, shut down, maintenance and malfunctions since during these times pollution may be many times higher than normal. Of course dioxins are mostly going to fall on the area around the school like any other incineration where the ground will be contaminated. Make sure the teachers, parents and kids know that putting your fingers in dirt and then in their mouths could be hazardous, that chicken eggs in the rose plume of the smoke stack will be contaminated, and so to fish in streams and lakes and to grazing animals in fields near by. Will someone be checking for dioxins levels in humans, milk and meat of grazing animals, in local eggs and fish since it is known that burning wood creates these dioxins.

    I’m sure that your officials know that boiler operations have a huge impact on the amount of dioxins emitted. Burning a boiler at a lower temperature increases dioxins emissions.

    Do parent understand that dioxins are one of the Deadly Dozen most toxic chemicals known to mankind? Dioxins are created by the burning of hydrocarbon (just say biomass) in the presence of chlorine . . . and chlorine is a ubiquitous element in nature. There should be plenty of precursors to make lots of dioxins for the community to ingest. Think cancer, endometriosis, thyroid disease, neurologic problems in children and more.

    Will there be any studies to determine the short-term impact on the pulmonary and cardiac systems of children, teachers and volunteers and especially those at higher risk with asthma, heart problems, etc.

    Will there be any way to determine the increased long-term risk for cancer causing emissions and endocrine disruptors that increase the risk for multiple health problems?

    Old people and/or people with chronic lung disease or heart disease should strongly consider not volunteering or working in these schools.

    Athletes and children should stay away from these schools too since they breathe in and out far more air than average adults. Our kids and athletes at play, of course, breath more rapidly and deeply and inhale more toxic air.

    Will the smokestacks be near any ball stadiums? High-risk folks like those with COPD, chronic bronchitis, asthma, heart disease, stroke risk, and those pregnant should stay away from these areas.

    Will anyone be watching for a weather inversion that basically voids all the air quality rules and expectations since air quality plans depend on the wind blowing the toxins away. (Away? Someone is always down wind? Perhaps your home?) When there is a weather inversion all the pollution will remain stagnant and more concentrated around these schools.

    Will the schools close during these times so that people don’t have to be in the toxic air? If an air inversion happens while kids are in school will it be safe inside or outside. Please note that the Environmental Protection Agency, (EPS) was established because of a deadly air inversion that made a whole town sick.

    Since it is reasonable to suspect that the biomass burning scam is based on money for someone, some business, that will cut and haul the wood, build and sell the boiler and associated equipment, perhaps have a maintenance contract, sell the trees and land, etc. has anyone checked out the connections of these people to insure that there is no conflict of interest between whomever is making the decision to convert to biomass burning and those making the money?

    How strange is it that parents are innocently allowing for their children to be abused in this way. Are they asking if health care due diligence has been don or are they just accepting this as safe for their kids? Yes, I know, I live in a small town and we trust our town fathers but, just for surety, as anyone asked to see the due diligence studies that have been done before approving this project? Due diligence is not based on anything that people making money off the project say!!!!

    A decision like this is especially peculiar since there appear to be cheaper and probably safer alternatives to providing energy. The school and community could actually consider truly clean forms of energy like solar, wind, geothermal, etc.

    Has anyone factored in the increased heath costs from diesel pollution from cutting, harvesting and transporting the wood; the increased health costs to citizens, teachers, children, etc. from the toxic emissions; the potential lost school days due to weather inversions and high pollution days; the cost of a fire in the wood storage area; the cost and example of making decisions without considering the health consequences.

    Parents should know that neither a handkerchief nor mask will keep dioxins, furans, nano particles, NOx, smog, or fine particular matter, etc. out of their kids bodies. There will be very little that parents or the school system can do to protect children, volunteers or staff when they are coming to school, leaving school, at recess, on ball fields or actually inside, when a fog of pollution hangs over the schoolyard.

    If I were a parent I would consult a lung specialist who understands air pollution before sending my child to any of these schools. I would consider moving to a different town or school district if economically possible. I know of another town that was faced with a similar issue and one of the largest business people in that town (who had school kids) simply moved his family 30 miles away to another school district. He kept all his business dealings in town but he and family were gone. As usual it will be those least able to move who will be most at risk for the host of medical complications that rise from toxic air.

    If someone could prove that the smokestack emissions from these schools wouldn’t increase health risks all this would be a horse of a different color. I would be happy to not raise these question if scientists could be proven wrong. But that hasn’t happened yet.

    Please, ask the decision makers what health due diligence they have done to prove that there are no increased health risks to children or adults in and around the proposed school smokestacks.

    Please do not accept any testimonials from employees of biomass burning companies or take any verbal reassurances from anyone. Know that once people make a decision they develop the Tolstoy Effect and will defend their decisions even when absurd and proven unsafe. Get everything in writing including the safety guarantees so you can sue them if necessary if they are proven wrong.

    If these folks provide any evidence that burning biomass is safe for you and your children, please have their evidence vetted by a pollution specialist.

    Please don’t accept health safety data from anyone but independent unbiased pollutions specialists who have studied the health risks stemming from the toxic emissions from burning biomass.

    Especially, do not accept any data or reassurance from any company specialists, or any specialist they bring in (and pay) from outside. An outside authoritative source, a specialist air pollution and health effects is needed to determine the health risk independently.

    The people who claim that emissions from burning biomass are safe should be required to prove it. The process should be transparent and free of the tampering fingers of whoever would make money off the process.

    Companies have lots of slick and glossy PR suggesting their processes are clean and safe. What else would anyone expect them to say since they have a vested interest in selling their product. In addition, most likely, their kids won’t live in your town and won’t be going to your school (at least not for long). Their kids won’t be breathing the emissions or at any risk if they live in another county or state.

    Simply trusting the decisions of other can be a big problem. Commissioners and board members can be misled or even dupped. Give them the benefit of the doubt and simply ask for proof of safety. Sometimes I think that even the company VPs of science and environment actually believe the data that they have claimed for so long. In a situation similar to yours I challenged a company on the toxicity of biomass emissions and they actually claimed that their emission were natural and that their whole burning process was solar . . . base on the fact that the fuel came from the sun. That’s like saying burning coal is a solar process.

    Please, make sure all parents know that emissions from biomass burning such as nano particles, fine particles, NOx that leads to smog after exposure to sunlight and volatile organic compounds, arsenic, dioxins, furans, etc. are all colorless and odorless as they leave the smokestack.

    You would never know (by looking or smelling) that the smokestacks are producing deadly toxins. If parents don’t understand this they could just trustingly drop their kids off at school, or put them on the bus and sent them into health hazard zones.

    I could be wrong in all that I say and perfectly willing to retract anything if this can be proved wrong. Perhaps these companies have some new technology and that scientists, lung specialists, physicians and epidemiologists could give them the thumbs up but I don’t think so.

    I would demand an opinion from unbiased specialists who have no reason to tell parents and board members anything except the truth.

    Get your own specialists who aren’t paid by the company or the decision makers who may just be ignorant to the health risk.

    Good Luck, William Blackley, MD, Fellow American Academy of Family Practice with an interest in clean air that is safe for us and our children.

    Like

  • Burning biomass at a school brings to mind the updated version of Hanlon’s razor:

    Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity or carelessness, but don’t rule out malice.

    I have a few thoughts and questions to add to the discussion:

    Biomass burning on school grounds is going to give a whole new meaning to recess.

    I assume, tongue in cheek, that there would be on site monitors to allow school officials to protect kids from breathing nanoparticles, dioxins, furans, small particulate matter, NOx and SOx, etc. that will, by necessity, be emitted from smokestacks at the school sites?

    Will the schools be burning tree pellets or also waste wood? Will the wood be checked for arsenic or materials that emit nano particles when burned?

    Will emissions be checked on a real time and continuous basis for toxic emissions so that an alarm would be sounded when the playground air is toxic and unsafe?

    Will there be an alert system and protocol to protect children and teachers, etc. during boiler start ups, shut down, maintenance and malfunctions since during these times pollution may be many times higher than normal. Of course dioxins are mostly going to fall on the area around the school like any other incineration where the ground will be contaminated. Make sure the teachers, parents and kids know that putting your fingers in dirt and then in their mouths could be hazardous, that chicken eggs in the rose plume of the smoke stack will be contaminated, and so to fish in streams and lakes and to grazing animals in fields near by. Will someone be checking for dioxins levels in humans, milk and meat of grazing animals, in local eggs and fish since it is known that burning wood creates these dioxins.

    I’m sure that your officials know that boiler operations have a huge impact on the amount of dioxins emitted. Burning a boiler at a lower temperature increases dioxins emissions.

    Do parent understand that dioxins are one of the Deadly Dozen most toxic chemicals known to mankind? Dioxins are created by the burning of hydrocarbon (just say biomass) in the presence of chlorine . . . and chlorine is a ubiquitous element in nature. There should be plenty of precursors to make lots of dioxins for the community to ingest. Think cancer, endometriosis, thyroid disease, neurologic problems in children and more.

    Will there be any studies to determine the short-term impact on the pulmonary and cardiac systems of children, teachers and volunteers and especially those at higher risk with asthma, heart problems, etc.

    Will there be any way to determine the increased long-term risk for cancer causing emissions and endocrine disruptors that increase the risk for multiple health problems?

    Old people and/or people with chronic lung disease or heart disease should strongly consider not volunteering or working in these schools.

    Athletes and children should stay away from these schools too since they breathe in and out far more air than average adults. Our kids and athletes at play, of course, breath more rapidly and deeply and inhale more toxic air.

    Will the smokestacks be near any ball stadiums? High-risk folks like those with COPD, chronic bronchitis, asthma, heart disease, stroke risk, and those pregnant should stay away from these areas.

    Will anyone be watching for a weather inversion that basically voids all the air quality rules and expectations since air quality plans depend on the wind blowing the toxins away. (Away? Someone is always down wind? Perhaps your home?) When there is a weather inversion all the pollution will remain stagnant and more concentrated around these schools.

    Will the schools close during these times so that people don’t have to be in the toxic air? If an air inversion happens while kids are in school will it be safe inside or outside. Please note that the Environmental Protection Agency, (EPS) was established because of a deadly air inversion that made a whole town sick.

    Since it is reasonable to suspect that the biomass burning scam is based on money for someone, some business, that will cut and haul the wood, build and sell the boiler and associated equipment, perhaps have a maintenance contract, sell the trees and land, etc. has anyone checked out the connections of these people to insure that there is no conflict of interest between whomever is making the decision to convert to biomass burning and those making the money?

    How strange is it that parents are innocently allowing for their children to be abused in this way. Are they asking if health care due diligence has been don or are they just accepting this as safe for their kids? Yes, I know, I live in a small town and we trust our town fathers but, just for surety, as anyone asked to see the due diligence studies that have been done before approving this project? Due diligence is not based on anything that people making money off the project say!!!!

    A decision like this is especially peculiar since there appear to be cheaper and probably safer alternatives to providing energy. The school and community could actually consider truly clean forms of energy like solar, wind, geothermal, etc.

    Has anyone factored in the increased heath costs from diesel pollution from cutting, harvesting and transporting the wood; the increased health costs to citizens, teachers, children, etc. from the toxic emissions; the potential lost school days due to weather inversions and high pollution days; the cost of a fire in the wood storage area; the cost and example of making decisions without considering the health consequences.

    Parents should know that neither a handkerchief nor mask will keep dioxins, furans, nano particles, NOx, smog, or fine particular matter, etc. out of their kids bodies. There will be very little that parents or the school system can do to protect children, volunteers or staff when they are coming to school, leaving school, at recess, on ball fields or actually inside, when a fog of pollution hangs over the schoolyard.

    If I were a parent I would consult a lung specialist who understands air pollution before sending my child to any of these schools. I would consider moving to a different town or school district if economically possible. I know of another town that was faced with a similar issue and one of the largest business people in that town (who had school kids) simply moved his family 30 miles away to another school district. He kept all his business dealings in town but he and family were gone. As usual it will be those least able to move who will be most at risk for the host of medical complications that rise from toxic air.

    If someone could prove that the smokestack emissions from these schools wouldn’t increase health risks all this would be a horse of a different color. I would be happy to not raise these question if scientists could be proven wrong. But that hasn’t happened yet.

    Please, ask the decision makers what health due diligence they have done to prove that there are no increased health risks to children or adults in and around the proposed school smokestacks.

    Please do not accept any testimonials from employees of biomass burning companies or take any verbal reassurances from anyone. Know that once people make a decision they develop the Tolstoy Effect and will defend their decisions even when absurd and proven unsafe. Get everything in writing including the safety guarantees so you can sue them if necessary if they are proven wrong.

    If these folks provide any evidence that burning biomass is safe for you and your children, please have their evidence vetted by a pollution specialist.

    Please don’t accept health safety data from anyone but independent unbiased pollutions specialists who have studied the health risks stemming from the toxic emissions from burning biomass.

    Especially, do not accept any data or reassurance from any company specialists, or any specialist they bring in (and pay) from outside. An outside authoritative source, a specialist air pollution and health effects is needed to determine the health risk independently.

    The people who claim that emissions from burning biomass are safe should be required to prove it. The process should be transparent and free of the tampering fingers of whoever would make money off the process.

    Companies have lots of slick and glossy PR suggesting their processes are clean and safe. What else would anyone expect them to say since they have a vested interest in selling their product. In addition, most likely, their kids won’t live in your town and won’t be going to your school (at least not for long). Their kids won’t be breathing the emissions or at any risk if they live in another county or state.

    Simply trusting the decisions of other can be a big problem. Commissioners and board members can be misled or even dupped. Give them the benefit of the doubt and simply ask for proof of safety. Sometimes I think that even the company VPs of science and environment actually believe the data that they have claimed for so long. In a situation similar to yours I challenged a company on the toxicity of biomass emissions and they actually claimed that their emission were natural and that their whole burning process was solar . . . base on the fact that the fuel came from the sun. That’s like saying burning coal is a solar process.

    Please, make sure all parents know that emissions from biomass burning such as nano particles, fine particles, NOx that leads to smog after exposure to sunlight and volatile organic compounds, arsenic, dioxins, furans, etc. are all colorless and odorless as they leave the smokestack.

    You would never know (by looking or smelling) that the smokestacks are producing deadly toxins. If parents don’t understand this they could just trustingly drop their kids off at school, or put them on the bus and sent them into health hazard zones.

    I could be wrong in all that I say and perfectly willing to retract anything if this can be proved wrong. Perhaps these companies have some new technology and that scientists, lung specialists, physicians and epidemiologists could give them the thumbs up but I don’t think so.

    I would demand an opinion from unbiased specialists who have no reason to tell parents and board members anything except the truth.

    Get your own specialists who aren’t paid by the company or the decision makers who may just be ignorant to the health risk.

    Good Luck, William Blackley, MD Fellow American Academy of Family Practice with an interest in clean air for us and our children

    Like

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