<strong> UPDATED 12/12/12 3:10pm with comments from Colmac Resources. </strong>
Biomass burners are often touted as relatively clean and renewable energy sources. But a new report finds the burners are sending unmonitored pollutants into the air near vulnerable residents such as school children.
“Lots of kids have asthma and they’re around a high emitter all day long while they’re at school,” said report author Mary Booth, director of the Massachusetts-based Partnership for Public Integrity. “So it seems like the state would want to require much more stringent emission controls than they are doing.”
Partnership for Public Integrity is a two-year old organization that focuses on biomass energy policy. Its new report was funded by The Heinz Endowments. One of the report’s recommendations is that burners be banned in areas with existing air quality problems, and that monitoring should be required near biomass burners to gauge pollution.
“While we have not yet fully reviewed this report, the burning of biomass is tightly regulated in Pennsylvania,” said DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday. “When these facilities are permitted, DEP determines the best available technology to be installed, so the contention that these facilities need ‘state of the art controls’ is deliberately misguided. DEP’s permitting and oversight of air quality issues is effective and robust.”
The report says many of new biomass burners and pellet production plants are located in places where pollution levels already exceed EPA air quality standards. Some of them are expanding with the help of state and federal grants and loans.
Biomass burners usually burn pelletized wood but some burn everything from yard waste to manure.
Tri-‐State Biofuels in Fayette County received $1 million in grants and loans from the state to convert Pennsylvania hardwoods to pellet fuel. The facility burns biomass for energy on site, which is in a County that is in non-‐attainment with the EPA ozone health standard and is in the top third of counties for asthma incidence. State Biofuels did not respond to a request for comment.
The report says the Piney Creek industrial biomass and waste coal facility in Clarion County has received nearly $900,000 in state and federal funding. The plant burns railroad ties and utility poles, which contain creosote and the toxic wood preservative pentachlorophenol as well as burning waste coal. Richard Turnbell, of Colmac Resources, which owns the Piney Creek Power Plant says the report was wrong on two counts. He says the company only received half the money the PFPI report claimed and that the other half was supplied by Colmac to match federal stimulus funding. In response to criticisms about a lack of emissions controls, he said that the power plant uses a type of fabric filter to reduce air pollution.
In all, More than $70 million in state and federal renewable energy subsidies have been spent on biomass energy and wood pellet production in the state.