2010 Jan. 27: IN Milltown: Defining ‘clean’ wood is key for biomass power projects
By Grace Schneider
By this summer, Indiana environmental regulators are expected to write the final details of an air-quality permit for the state’s first large biomass power plant near Milltown – with a second one in Scottsburg to soon follow.
But a basic question about both projects remains unanswered: What will the state allow the operators to burn for fuel?
The description of allowable fuels is crucial on several fronts. Residents who are concerned about potential pollution insist the state should narrowly define “clean wood” as wood chips and other unvarnished scrap lumber to ensure that emissions are as free as possible of any hazards.
The partners at Liberty Green Renewables LLC, the Harrison County company that wants to build the two plants, hope the list of permitted fuel fits the boiler they have planned. But Terry Naulty, one of the partners, said they stand ready to comply with whatever regulators decide is appropriate under state and federal rules.
“I don’t know what the final permit is going to contain,” Naulty said. “But we expect it to say ‘clean wood.’”
At the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, where rules for the emerging biomass technology are being drafted, regulators acknowledge that they haven’t settled on a definition for that term.
At a Jan. 13 public meeting on the Milltown project, Matt Stuckey, chief of IDEM’s air-permit branch, said repeatedly that Liberty Green would be required to burn only “untreated, uncoated” wood.
The proposed air permit specifies several types of fuel, including mill residue, tree chips, brush, storm debris, switch grass, cornstalks, waste pallets, crates and other uncoated, solid manufacturing wood waste. It rules out pressure-treated or chemically treated wood or fiberboard.
But near the close of the meeting, Stuckey mentioned that the agency still hasn’t decided what would comprise a final list of fuels.
IDEM spokesman Rob Elstro said agency officials planned to meet with Liberty Green representatives soon to discuss concerns raised at the meeting about the permit, including the fuel description.
Regulators agreed they need to clarify the list and ensure they have emissions information for each item.
“They’re working on the exact language that would say what is considered clean wood and what is not considered clean wood,” Elstro said, adding that some things mentioned in the permit, such as storm debris, ultimately may not qualify.
The source of such debris could be difficult to pin down and might include hazards such as asbestos from damaged or destroyed buildings.
Cara Beth Jones, leader of Concerned Citizens of Crawford County, a group opposed to Liberty Green’s project, said it’s troubling for residents who are worried about environmental impacts to know that such a fundamental part of what was billed as “clean” and “renewable” is still under discussion.
“You can tell they’re really struggling with this,” Jones said.
Opponents recently sent the agency a certified letter asking for a public hearing in hopes of ensuring that state regulators’ comments about the allowed wood types and other aspects of the Milltown permit are part of the public record.
Dr. Bill Sammons, a Boston pediatrician and the leader of a Massachusetts-based environmental group working with project opponents in Milltown and Scottsburg, said residents are right to question what’s going on.
Regulators “are obviously being pressured by Liberty Green to expand the definition” of what fuel the plant can use, Sammons said.
Naulty said regulators appear to be “ratcheting back” the list of permitted fuel in response to community concerns. Even so, he said, “we think there’s more than enough fuel to meet that ‘clean wood’ definition.”
Liberty Green announced a year ago that it intended to build a $100 million generating plant to sell electric power on more than 100 acres on Ind. 64 near Ind. 66 – the first of what the partnership has projected would be three such Indiana facilities. A second is planned on the east side of Interstate 65, south of Scottsburg’s city limits.
Naulty said the partnership hasn’t announced the location of the third site, although he said it’s not in the region.
In nearly identical air-permit applications, Liberty Green estimated that both 32-megawatt plants in this area would emit 245 tons of nitrogen oxide and 226 tons of carbon dioxide each year. Under federal and state regulations, because the plants would emit less than 250 tons of a particular chemical, neither is considered a “major source” of pollution that would require the owners to install more extensive air-pollution devices like those for large coal-fired power stations.
Besides a large investment of taxable industry in the communities, the developers envision each plant would provide 25 or so jobs and additional positions connected to transporting wood to the plants.
Indiana currently has no biomass-to-electricity generating stations in operation. But Elstro said it’s common when regulators review projects with innovative technology to also consider vendor guarantees, best engineering practices and emission information from other facilities to help write the final permit.
As with any permit the state issues, he said, a facility would be required to show that it’s meeting all limits and conditions — something that involves continuous monitoring and tests on the smokestacks.
Reporter Grace Schneider can be reached at (812) 949-4040.