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Report: Company Pushing Biomass Plant in Kentucky Misled About Pollution Rate

Photographer: Frankie Steele

This story was reported by the  Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, part of  Louisville Public Media. You can find out more and see more stories  at the KyCIR website.The company proposing to build a wood-burning, electricity-generating plant in eastern Kentucky “invented” and “cherry-picked” the rate of pollution that the plant would likely release, and did so in order to be subject to less-stringent emissions standards, according to a report released today by an energy policy group.In its 2010 application for a state air-quality permit, ecoPower Generation -- Hazard -- LLC “abruptly and inexplicably” reduced the level of its projected discharges, according to the report by the Massachusetts-based Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI).Thus, ecoPower would avoid being characterized as a “major” source of pollutants, which would require more stringent standards for oversight and for reducing emissions, the report notes.The release of the PFPI study follows an investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting that found ecoPower had received special treatment from Kentucky legislators, some of whom also issued misleading letters of support on the biomass project’s behalf.The project could have an overall negative effect on the economy of Perry County and the surrounding area -- already one of the most impoverished in the state -- by reducing employment and raising the average customer’s annual electricity bill by more than $100.For years, ecoPower has sought to build its billion-dollar project in an industrial park 11 miles northwest of Hazard. The state Public Service Commission last October approved ecoPower’s contract to sell its electricity. This occurred after the Kentucky General Assembly enacted legislation specifically designed to facilitate the project.The PSC’s decision is being challenged in court, effectively putting the plant on hold.The 81-page report prepared by PFPI ecologist Mary Booth is harshly critical not only of the ecoPower project but also of dozens of other wood-fueled plants built or proposed around the country, and of biomass burning in general.“It is not a stretch to conclude that biomass plants being permitted throughout the country combine some of the worst emissions characteristics of coal-fired power plants and waste incinerators, all the while professing to be clean and green," the report states.The report claims that while biomass-touting companies “routinely sell host communities on the idea (that) a biomass plant is ‘clean’ and safe, they appear to be misrepresenting actual emissions while avoiding using the best pollution controls…”The report also takes federal and state oversight to task, citing “gaping loopholes” in the federal Clean Air Act and “lax regulation” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state permitting agencies, thus allowing biomass plants “to emit even more pollution.”Gary Crawford, ecoPower’s chief executive officer, declined to comment on the report. The company’s air-quality permit “speaks for itself,” Crawford said. Sean Alteri, director of the Kentucky Division for Air Quality, said in an e-mail response that the permit issued by the state to ecoPower “includes enforceable limitations with sufficient monitoring requirements to ensure compliance with all applicable requirements.” Alteri said the state’s permit requires ecoPower to install a device to continuously monitor emissions of hydrogen chloride, the largest hazardous air pollutant by volume. And he said the permit includes limitations designed to ensure that emissions of other hazardous pollutants do not exceed allowable levels. The PFPI report finds that even the cleanest biomass plants can more emit more nitrogen oxides, particulates and carbon monoxide than a coal-fired plant, and far more than a natural gas-powered plant. Biomass power plants “are also a danger to the climate, emitting nearly 50 percent more CO2 (carbon dioxide) per megawatt generated than the next biggest carbon polluter, coal,” the report states. While forest regrowth can in theory offset carbon dioxide emissions over time, the report states that the process can take decades to fully compensate for the CO2 rapidly injected into the atmosphere during biomass burning.

R.G. Dunlop is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has exposed government corruption and resulted in numerous reforms. Email R.G. at rdunlop@lpm.org.

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