In the Push to Grow a Much-Needed Clean Energy Economy, MA DEP Leaves Springfield Behind

Sue Reid

Massachusetts’ commitment to a new clean energy economy has been welcome news both economically and environmentally. There’s an awful lot to like about reversing the export of billions of dollars sent outside Massachusetts and the country each year to buy dirty fossil fuel energy that harms our health, increases our health care expenses and has substantial impacts on our environment, economy, jobs and national security. No question, there’s tremendous potential for investing in clean homegrown energy right here in Massachusetts, in a win for the economy and the environment. But if we’re truly going to be successful in building a new clean energy economy, we need to pay attention to the “clean” element of that equation. And if our burgeoning clean energy revolution is to be successful, it absolutely cannot leave behind the Massachusetts communities that long have borne the brunt of our dependence on dirty energy.

A true clean energy economy ought to mean cleaner air for everyone. It’s a ‘no-brainah’ (as they say in these parts), right?  Apparently Massachusetts DEP doesn’t think so. In a deeply troubling decision issued on September 11, Massachusetts DEP Commissioner Ken Kimmell upheld an air pollution permit for a 35 Megawatt (MW) wood-burning power plant that is proposed to be built at Palmer Paving, smack in the midst of a state and federally designated environmental justice community in Springfield. In taking this action, DEP gave the green light to a facility that will annually release dozens of tons of damaging fine particulates and hazardous air pollutants, as well as hundreds of thousands of tons of harmful global warming pollution, in an area documented by the MA Department of Public Health to have significantly worse air quality and markedly higher rates of respiratory illness than the state average. What’s up with that?!  Has the DEP Commissioner already forgotten his own “tweets” this summer that alerted the public to unhealthy air quality in central Massachusetts, even before the PRE power plant adds new air pollution to the mix?

While we’re pleased that DEP Commissioner Kimmell reversed the agency’s earlier findings on standing, allowing CLF, Arise for Social Justice, Toxics Action Center and our “Ten Residents Group” partners to challenge Palmer Renewable Energy’s (PRE) air permit, the decision to uphold the permit reflects a sorry abdication of DEP’s obligation to protect against damaging air pollution.  Among other troubling flaws:

•  DEP’s Final Decision lays out burdensome new requirements for “Ten Citizens” groups seeking to participate in air permitting proceedings, forcing concerned residents to invoke trial-like proceedings at the public comment stage to protect their rights even before DEP’s air permitting decisions are known;

In upholding the PRE air pollution permit, DEP relies on highly questionable testimony of the power plant developer’s expert witness whose unorthodox views on the health impacts of fine particulate matter were discredited recently by at least one federal court on the basis that the witness’ unconventional views cast him as an outlier in his field;

• Despite the hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions the PRE wood-burning power plant would release each year, DEP’s Final Decision explicitly – and erroneously – suggests that there is an open question regarding whether the decision must comply with the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act, even though the Act’s language is unequivocally clear that DEP must comply.

At the end of the day, I’m reminded of the sage words of a 10 year old girl with asthma who hand-wrote her pithy letter to DEP opposing the PRE power plant: “We deserve clean air… It’s not fair!!!!” Well said.

So, we will work to hold DEP accountable for reducing, not increasing, air pollution and respecting the right to meaningful public participation. And we will continue to cheer the local officials in Springfield who are refusing to allow the PRE power plant to cut corners and have revoked all local permits for project.

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