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Massachusetts Revokes Permit For Controversial Wood-Burning Power Plant In Springfield

Updated at 6:15 p.m. 

A Massachusetts state agency has revoked an air permit for a biomass plant long planned for Springfield.

The wood-burning plant has been vehemently opposed in recent years by the City Council, as well as residents and activists concerned about pollution and air quality. They note Springfield is rated the "asthma capital" of the United States by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said Friday it was revoking the permit in part because the company, Palmer Renewable Energy, had failed to begin construction in the nine years since the permit was approved.

Palmer Renewable Energy, according to The Springfield Republican, previously said it already began construction. In its letter, MassDEP disagreed, saying the company had "performed certain site modifications" but had not "commenced construction."

The entrance to Palmer Paving Corporation's site in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Credit Robin Lubbock / WBUR
The entrance to Palmer Paving Corporation's site in Springfield, Massachusetts.
An architect's rendering of the proposed biomass plant in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Credit File / MassLive / MassLive.com
MassLive / MassLive.com
An architect's rendering of the proposed biomass plant in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The department also noted "more recent health-related information, and the heightened focus on environmental and health impacts on environmental justice populations from sources of pollution during the intervening years."

The state designates an environmental justice population as a neighborhood meeting certain income, race or language criteria. Nearly all of Springfield is included.

MassDEP said Palmer Renewable Energy has 10 days to request a hearing on the decision.

If it fails and chooses to pursue a new permit, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides indicated the company may have a steeper hill to climb than it did a decade ago.

"As part of the Baker-Polito Administration’s commitment to environmental justice and air quality, in any new permit process MassDEP would require Palmer Renewable Energy to demonstrate the proper air controls are in place, and consider air quality impacts on the surrounding Environmental Justice community," Theoharides said in a statement.

After years of inaction by the developers, the debate over the biomass plant was renewed last year. That's because the Baker administration moved to change rules for renewable energy subsidies, WBUR reported, increasing the likelihood the Springfield plant could be profitable.

City Councilor Jesse Lederman, who worked as an activist opposing the plant before he was elected, hailed the revocation of the permit.

"The decision by MassDEP makes it clear what I have long said: the days of polluters being rubber stamped in communities like ours are over," he said in a statement.

Last month councilors announced they would be assisted by pro bono counsel from the Conservation Law Foundation to appeal a local building permit.

Mayor Domenic Sarno has supported the biomass plant's proposal through the years. A spokesman for the mayor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In December, U.S. Senator Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren asked the state to suspend its approval of the plant until the Biden administration could release its energy policy. On Friday, they said the state’s decision “will save lives.”

"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," the senators said in a joint statement.

Palmer Renewable Energy could not be immediately reached for comment.

In a February op-ed published by Commonwealth, the company's Vic Gatto wrote he needed to respond to "ongoing public misinformation about biomass." He said the plant would "reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, lower carbon emissions using local resources, and do so in a way that does not pose a threat to public health."

Sam Hudzik has overseen local news coverage on New England Public Media since 2013. He oversees a team of about a dozen full- and part-time reporters and hosts.
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