Report: Biomass Pollutes Air and Harms the Vulnerable

  • Biomass Conveyor

​Biomass burners are often touted as relatively clean and renewable energy sources. But a new report says the burners are sending unmonitored pollutants into the air near vulnerable groups of people, such as school children--with $70 million in government subsidies.

“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 a $34,000 grant from The Heinz Endowments. The Allegheny Front is also supported 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 Department of Environmental Protection 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.”

Biomass burners usually burn pelletized wood but some burn everything from yard waste to manure. The report says many new biomass burners and wood pellet production plants are located in places where pollution levels already exceed EPA air quality standards.

The report says 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 also burns biomass for energy on site and the report points out that Fayette County already does not meet EPA ozone health standards.  Tri-State Biofuels declined to comment for this story.

The report also highlighted emissions from the Piney Creek industrial biomass and waste coal facility in Clarion County. 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 Maryland-based Colmac Resources, which owns the Piney Creek Power Plant, says the report contains inaccuracies. He says the company only received half the money the PFPI report claimed was from the government, and that the other half was supplied by Colmac to match federal stimulus funding. In response to Turnbell's statement, report author Booth did say the company was correct, but that it's overall total of $70 million in state and federal subsidies is still accurate.

The report reommends the following:

  • Requiring what it describes as state-of-the-art emissions controls for institutional biomass burners, especially those in schools.
  • Air quality monitoring in the vicinity of biomass burners built or planned at schools and other institutions.
  • A moratorium on siting biomass burners in environmental justice areas (those where 20 percent or more individuals live in poverty, and/or 30 percent or more of the population is minority and areas where air pollution already exceeds health standards).
  • Stricter policies to ensure that materials such as construction and demolition debris, which emit elevated levels of heavy metals and other hazardous air pollutants, are kept out of the biomass fuel stream.