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Biomass pollution worse than thought

Jennifer Ffrench-Parker | 4/4/2014, 6 a.m.

If it is ever built, Green Energy Partners’ Lithonia plant will be more polluting than its many opponents ever thought, a report released April 2 finds.

The report by Pelham, Mass.-based Partnership for Policy Integrity analyzed 88 air permits of biomass plants – including Green Energy and 11 other Georgia plants – in 25 states. It says that the “green” energy of biomass electricity plants that rely primarily on the burning of wood “is more polluting and worse for the climate than coal.”

The report – “Trees, Trash, and Toxics: How Biomass Energy Has Become the New Coal” – finds that a “perfect storm” of lax regulation and regulatory rollbacks makes biomass plants increasingly likely to emit toxic compounds like dioxins; heavy metals including lead, arsenic and mercury; and emerging contaminants like phthalates found in waste-derived fuel products being approved under new EPA rules.

The 81-page report, written by Dr. Mary Booth, PFPI’s founder and director, concludes that biomass power plants, which receive government renewable energy subsidies and tax credits, being built in Georgia and around the country are allowed to emit more pollution than comparable coal plants or commercial waste incinerators.

It said that a majority of the facilities reviewed allowed the burning of demolition debris and other waste wood and that for every major pollutant, their emissions exceed those from a natural gas plant by more than 800 percent. It also found that the plants emit nearly 50 percent more carbon dioxide per megawatt generated than coal, which is the next biggest carbon polluter and that these plants take advantage of “gaping loopholes” in the Clean Air Act and lax regulation by the EPA and state-permitting agencies to emit even more pollution.

Nationally since 2005, more than 70 new wood-burning plants have been built or are under way, and another 75, including Green Energy Partners’ Lithonia plant on 21.12 acres at 1744 and 1770 Rogers Lake Road, are proposed and are in various stages of development.

The report says the growth of biomass plants is fueled by renewable energy subsidies and federal tax credits.

“The biomass power industry is increasingly burning contaminated fuels, blurring the lines between renewable energy that has been portrayed as ‘clean,’ and waste incineration,” Booth wrote in the report’s executive summary. “While most biomass plants burn forest wood as fuel, the majority of the permits we reviewed also allowed burning waste wood, including construction and demolition debris.”

The non-profit PFPI says “Trees, Trash, and Toxics” is a first-ever detailed analysis of the bioenergy industry and that it reveals that the “rebooted industry is still a major polluter” even as biomass plant developers routinely tell host communities that biomass power is “clean energy.”

Its examination of 88 air emissions permits issued to biomass plants found that:

-- Biomass plants are given special treatment and are allowed to emit two-and-a-half times more pollution (250 tons of a criteria pollutant) than a coal plant, where the threshold is 100 tons.

-- That almost half of the 88 facilities avoided permitting altogether by claiming that they will be “synthetic minor” sources of pollution.