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Has MassDEP Decapitated Springfield Biomass at Long Last?…

State Office Building Springfield, MA

Mass DEP, Springfield office pictured here, had this message for Palmer Renewable: Bye, Felicia! (via mass.gov)

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection may have driven a stake through the heart of the nigh-undead biomass power plant proposed for Springfield. In a five-page decision dated April 2, the department said it pulled the air quality permit amid growing public pressure and heightened health concerns thanks to COVID-19. DEP could take this action because the developer, Palmer Renewable Energy (PRE), failed to meaningfully undertake construction promptly.

The department’s move could cap more than a decade of battles between local environmental activists and the developers. The issue had divided 36 Court Street, too, with the City Council vigorously opposing the plant while Mayor Domenic Sarno and his administration has been quite sympathetic. Though slumbering for years as a time, PRE had begun to reanimate their plans. That activated opponents, who had enlisted the help of US Senators Abraham Van Helsing and Mina Harker Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren.

“After a thorough review of the construction status of the proposed Palmer Renewable Energy facility in Springfield, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has revoked the facility’s air plan approval due to a lack of continuous construction as required in state regulation, the nine years that have lapsed since the air plan’s approval, and public health and Environmental Justice concerns,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides in a statement to WMP&I.

The DEP is a unit of the state’s Executive Office of Energy & Environmental Affairs.

The plant has already become one of the longest running controversies in the city. At-large city councilor Jesse Lederman got his start as an environmentalist activist opposing the plant as a teenager.

“For too long communities like ours have been targeted by out of town developers seeking to get rich at the expense of the public health and environment of our children, seniors, and all residents, leading to generations of concentrated pollution and health and environmental inequities,” Lederman said.

He thanked Senators Markey and Warren for their intervention via letter last year. Their letter cited the city’s high asthma and COVID-19 rates, and marshalled data to argue a biomass power plant would undermine climate goals and public health.

PRE could not be immediately reached as of posting time.

Is the coffin door finally closed on biomass plant PRE wants to build here. (WMP&I)

The revocation may not be the final word on the plant. PRE can still request an adjudicatory hearing. It could sue DEP or simply seek another permit. However, it will face increasing legal challenges no matter what.

The Springfield Building Department, pointing to activity the DEP now says is not construction, issued PRE a building permit despite its local site permit expiring.

“Even granting PRE the most generous interpretation of delays in proceeding with the implementation of the PRE Final Plan Approval resulting from the court appeals, PRE needed to commence construction no later than March 6, 2019,” writes DEP Regional Director Michael Gorski.

Last month, the Springfield City Council accepted legal counsel from the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), a New England-focused environmental organization. CLF will represent teh Council during an appeal of city Building Commissioner Steven Desilets’s issuance of PRE’s building permit. That appeal is before the Springfield Zoning Board of Appeals.

The CLF’s interim director Caitlin Peale Sloan welcomed DEP’s revocation. “Springfield residents made their opposition to this polluting plant clear, and DEP officials have handed them a win today. The fact is that burning biomass is neither clean nor renewable and it should be left in the past with fossil fuels.”

A spokesperson for Sarno did not respond to a request for comment as of posting time.

The history of biomass in Springfield feels almost ancient now. In the twilight of the all at-large City Council, the body approved a special permit for the facility. The tide quickly shifted when the city revived ward representation. All eight newly-elected ward councilors opposed it. Over the years, even rivals in the same ward elections condemned the ungodly project.

Councilors Michael Fenton & Timothy Allen confer with then-Councilor John Lysak before a hearing in 2012. Lysak would later lose his seat to Orlando Ramos, but they agreed on biomass. (WMP&I)

PRE had planned to build the plant on property on Page Boulevard that its sister company, Palmer Paving has used. The location sits roughly where Wards 2 and 8 meet.

Orlando Ramos, the outgoing Ward 8 councilor and a now a state rep, said he was “elated.”

“I, along with many of my colleagues in government and community members have been fighting to protect our community from this project for over a decade,” Ramos said in a statement.

Michael Fenton first won his Ward 2 seat in 2009, the year ward representation returned to Springfield. Opposition to the plant has been an animating feature of his tenure since. In a texted statement, he indicated he does not consider the battle over.

“I am thrilled, but we are not out of the woods yet,” Fenton wrote. “Our resolve remains—we are not going anywhere. I won’t take my eye off the ball.”

Over time, the plant became toxic it had virtually no allies on the Council. Members of the body revoked the special permit and pursued legal action to sustain the move. Succeeding classes of councilors would include more and more opponents, such as Lederman.

The Council and the late social justice activist Michaelann Bewsee had appealed an adverse Land Court ruling. Ultimately, a state appeals court sided with PRE finding that the developer never needed a special permit from the Council. Thus, the project could move forward under the zoning ordinance as it then existed.

Opponents of biomass brandishing the torches & pitchforks of the day at a Council hearing in 2011. (WMP&I)

While that litigation concluded in 2015, PRE sat on its hands—at least in DEP’s view. While the 35-megawatt plant had an initial air plan approval in 2008 and a final air plan approval in 2012, little happened after. In its letter revoking the permit, DEP says that the plant did not qualify for extensions of time under a Great Recession-era law or a pandemic executive order. PRE’s approvals all took place outside the applicable timelines.

The decision also notes that the state has adopted an environmental justice policy and Springfield qualifies as a target community. The city, which already suffers from chronically high asthma rates, also suffers from high COVID-19 infection rates. These factors contributed to the revocation.

“Taking into consideration the heightened focus on environmental and health impacts on environmental justice populations since 2012 and more recent health-related information, an updated review of technologies involved in the burning of biomass, Best Available Control Technology for air pollution mitigation, modeling that considers changes in the surrounding ambient air quality, and the impact on the community that would result from the facility’s emissions is warranted,” Gorski writes.

Bewsee’s successor at Arise for Social Justice, Tanisha Arena, told WBUR that Springfield residents “can literally breathe a sigh of relief.”

While the letter only makes a passing reference to Markey and Warren’s intervention, the senators’ letter had prompted PRE to claim it had performed activities “essential and specific to” construction. DEP was skeptical. During an inspection the department found only some demolition and earthwork. A pile of recycle asphalt still lay in the footprint of the plant.

How’s the air up there, governor? Biomass’s earlier approvals predate his Excellency, pictured here in 2014, but he, too, invited PRE in. (WMP&I)

Governor Charlie Baker has supported other policies sympathetic to biomass. Among them is an interpretation of renewable energy credit rules that would benefit PRE. Secretary Theoharides suggested the decision reflects Baker’s commitment to environmental justice. However, the letter cites recent climate legislation, which Baker signed last month after initially vetoing it.

While DEP’s revocation did not discuss Markey and Warren much, their intervention may have weighed heavily, too. In a joint statement, the senators were ebullient.

“The revocation of the approval for the Palmer biomass plant is a victory for Springfield residents, the health of our communities, and our fight for a livable planet,” Markey and Warren said. “We are pleased that MassDEP heeded our call to prioritize environmental justice and air quality concerns, and we are thrilled to celebrate this victory with the Springfield residents who fought so passionately against it. Today’s decision will save lives.”

In February Markey joined councilors and State Senators Adam Gomez and Eric Lesser to back biomass opponents in person. A source said Markey could come to Springfield to address this development soon.

Both state senators also feted the revocation in statements that torched the project. Lesser said the plant never belonged in Springfield.

“The idea of citing a biomass facility in the asthma capital of the United States lacked common sense or regard for equity,” he said.

Gomez, late of the Council himself, said this felt like a final chapter of the 12-year fight. He thanked colleagues past and present and issued a warning to PRE itself.

Sen. Markey with State Senators Gomez & Lesser and Councilors Lederman, Fenton, & Allen discussing the undead in February. (WMP&I)

“To Palmer Renewable Energy – stay out and don’t come back. If you appeal, we’ll keep fighting you,” Gomez said.

Though opponents may feel like the proposal is itself, at last incinerated, the plant has seemingly died before. As Fenton suggested, there are at least a few proceedings ahead. Lederman’s statement the Council was not slowing down. He implied councilors will march into the ZBA hearing with the DEP’s finding on construction in hand.

“The decision is also clearly in line with the issues raised by the Springfield City Council in our recent filing with the Zoning Board of Appeals,” he said.

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