[OPINION] Biomass Energy Facilities Can Worsen Air Pollution

[Read the opposing view to this opinion piece, “Biomass Facilities Play Important Role in Improving Air Quality,” by Bruce Springsteen, Placer County Air Pollution Control District]

– by Jana Ganion, Energy Director, Blue Lake Rancheria

“Particulate matter pollution” — air-borne particles (visible and invisible) that seep into our lungs and environment — is now a proven, dire health hazard, and an environmental harm accelerant.

We can compare the crescendo of information around the health hazards of particulate matter air pollution to the public’s awakening to — and acceptance of — the health hazards of cigarettes. In the case of tobacco, we proceeded from physicians recommending smoking, to understanding that it absolutely causes cancer.

The certainty regarding the dangers of particulate matter air pollution has reached the same point: there is no doubt it damages health — from worsening asthma, to heart and lung disease, to shortened lifespans, and death.

Just type “particulate matter health” in your favorite internet search engine and glance at recommendations from non-partisan, trusted agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control, the Mayo Clinic, the World Health Organization, the Environmental Protection Agency , State of New York, and many others.

In an interesting recent article from the Wall Street Journal, “Does Poor Air Quality Hurt Stock-Market Returns?”, economist researchers from both Columbia University and University of Ottawa found that on bad-air days in New York City, when 2.5 micron particulate matter (PM2.5, invisible particles most dangerous to human health) were at high levels, stock market prices went down by ~12%. It seems that when people can’t breathe well, they get “risk averse.”

In my work for the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe, I have had to become educated on particulate matter because of non-compliant emissions from a privately-owned biomass plant, Blue Lake Power, LLC, located less than ½ mile from the Tribe. Blue Lake Power, which has no affiliation with the Tribe, has a history of non-compliance with the Clean Air Act over its ~7-year operating history. It avoided key permitting requirements when it started its operations, and since then permitting and enforcement agencies have allowed it continue, and to disperse tons of particulate matter on the Tribe’s community and the Mad River Valley.

In addition to chronic health issues, borne primarily by children and elders, pollution has deposited into the Mad River, an impaired waterway for sediment, which contains endangered and threatened species — including some of the last free salmon runs on the Pacific Coast.

Further, the baseline air quality in our area is not healthy — we are a “non-attainment” area for particulate matter air standards even without the particulates emitted by Blue Lake Power. In the past, the Tribe has viewed the black, greasy soot and ash from the plant deposited on vehicles and community gardens as a nuisance. They accepted coupons for car washes as “mitigation.” We all know better now.

Particulate matter pollution is quite literally lethal. The California Environmental Protection Agency’s “Estimate of Premature Deaths Associated with Fine Particle Pollution (PM2.5) in California….” study found that PM2.5 causes approximately 9,000 deaths per year in California alone.

Do we have a biomass issue to solve in the West? Yes. Bark beetle tree deaths (tens of millions and climbing), forest fires, overgrown under stories — where biomass can be removed to remediate forests (e.g., torrefied pellets, briquettes, biochar to enrich soils, etc.) consistent with human health, we support it.

Where biomass can be used to create power, and not emit hazardous and deadly amounts of particulate matter and other pollutants through control technologies, we support it. By some reports, Blue Lake Power joins over 75% of biomass plants in the U.S. in non-compliant status.

But we cannot support biomass power generally any longer.

Biomass power should not be automatically included in green energy incentives and renewable portfolios because of its emissions — particulates, oxides of nitrogen (NOx), and other emissions (arsenic, lead, toxic ash slurries, and others). And, as is the case with Blue Lake Power, there is a real issue with the perception of — or outright business practice of — ‘harvesting subsidies’ while not meeting compliance requirements. As just one example, at the same general time it incurred a $1.3 million penalty for violations, Blue Lake Power was awarded $5.4 million federal grant (taxpayer dollars) to support green energy.

We need green energy dollars to support technologies that actually work, environmentally and economically. Where biomass power is designated as renewable, it must have compliance requirements (and penalties for non-compliance) attached to its “green” status and incentives. Otherwise, biomass power can certainly worsen the very problems it is claiming to solve.

Jana Ganion is Energy Director for Blue Lake Rancheria, a federally recognized Native American Tribe based in Humboldt County, California.

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