Tim Blagg

Blagg: Missed opportunity

As I read the other day about people celebrating the fact that the proposed biomass plant in Greenfield was dead, I could only feel disappointed.

That unhappiness was on several different levels.

For one, I was unhappy that the plant was not going to be built, on the other that the public policy decision to stop the plan was marked by a combination of irrational fear and petty personal concerns, rather than real problems with the idea.

Let me explain.

First of all, ever since President Carter declared “war” on our energy situation, people have been touting renewable energy as an answer to getting away from our reliance on imported oil. Hydro, solar, wind, geothermal and biomass have been seen as solutions — at least partial solutions — to being held hostage by foreign countries.

After all, we’ve fought terrible wars to keep that oil flowing.

Coupled with energy conservation and against a backdrop of nuclear energy, renewable sources were made the goal.

So when I read about a plan to build a small biomass plant in Greenfield’s I-91 Industrial Park I was overjoyed. The park, after all, was built to house such enterprises and it sits on the town’s border near a set of high tension power lines, with few homes nearby.

It’s on a hard rock outcropping, so engineers wouldn’t have to worry about the clay layers that underlie most of the town, and which make building large buildings such a complex and expensive proposition.

When I found out that the plan was to pipe discharge from the town’s sewer treatment facility across town, the plan made even more sense. That water, after all, is piped into the Green River, which flows into the Deerfield and then into the Connecticut.

Given the state’s stringent wastewater regulations, it’s certified as a nonpollutant.

Using it to cool the plant, then piping any overflow back into the inlet of the plant would take care of any problems at the plant and also allow the town to keep a close eye on discharges.

What’s more, that warm water opened several spinoff possibilities, from heated year-around greenhouses in the industrial park to cogeneration heating of town buildings along the pipeline route.

Cool! What a great idea!

Since I once lived and worked in Maine, I’m quite familiar with the problems of family-owned small woodlots. These properties are often marred by “trash trees” growing too close together, or of the wrong species. But selective cutting, needed to thin the lot and make it eventually profitable, is very expensive.

It’s much cheaper to clear-cut it.

But a market for wood chips, like that offered by a biomass plant, offers families a chance to pay for that thinning, increasing their lot’s worth while providing some income.

It was a win-win-win situation.

But not for long. To my dismay, we saw an influx of doomsayers from around the country, carpetbaggers who flocked in to buttonhole locals and predict disaster.

“What,” they asked, “if the plant switches to burning trash?” Pollution hell!

“What,” they shrilled, “if the state doesn’t enforce its air pollution laws?”

Sick children!

“What,” they demanded, “if prescription drugs dumped down toilets in town somehow concentrate themselves in the sewer outflow and are dispersed far and wide downwind of the plant?”

A health catastrophe.

Calm reason could not compete. Could not the state license for the plant prohibit switching from biomass? Why would Massachusetts, with some of the strictest pollution laws in the nation, suddenly stop enforcing them?

If those drugs in the water are so dangerous, why have we been dumping them in our rivers for decades? Are there demonstrable bad effects in evidence?

It was all for naught.

And then there were the NIMBYs. Yes, they live next to an industrial park — INDUSTRIAL PARK — which might reasonably be expected to, well, house industry.

Yes, the developer demonstrated that the plant would be practically unnoticeable from any nearby vantage point.

Yes, The Recorder sent a reporter to Burlington, Vt., where a similar (but less sophisticated) plant has been running for more than 20 years, and found no discernible effect on the neighborhood.

But never mind. The plant was going to be an eyesore and probably make their children ill ... kill it!

The stake in the plant’s heart, though, came from the state.

The question here had to do with the phrase “carbon neutral.” How could a plant that burns wood chips, thereby producing soot, water vapor and carbon dioxide, fail to contribute to global warming?

The answer, which hardly anyone had the patience to hear, is that over an approximately 30-year cycle, the trees that are burned are replaced by new trees, which take back the carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. If left alone and not cut down, they eventually die, fall to the ground, and release EXACTLY the same amount of carbon dioxide.

Therefore, almost every expert in the world agrees that biomass on a 30-year cycle is, in fact, carbon neutral.

But Massachusetts, in its wisdom, ruled that only plants that are neutral on a 20-year cycle can be built.

Death to biomass!

So we’re left with burning fossil fuel, which is, I believe, a crime against humanity.

It’s a finite resource, fraught with all sorts of serious long-term problems, from mining coal to fracking to foreign entanglements.

The evolutionary oddity which produced it back in the Carboniferous Period will never be repeated ... once it’s gone, it’s gone.

And now we’ve missed a chance to save some of it ... and that’s a crying shame.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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