By RANDALL SUSSMAN - Published: November 25, 2012
The biomass power plant proposed for Springfield is out of line with the Springfield Town Plan. And now the Springfield Select Board is preparing to change the town plan. Unfortunately, we now have a real-world example of what may be in store for Springfield if we get a biomass plant. All we have to do is look to a recent tax calamity in Russell, Mass.
In Russell, a half-built biomass plant was just abruptly abandoned by the developer when it failed to meet necessary, improved efficiency standards. Following the abandonment of the project by the builder, a local Select Board member declared the land worthless to the town’s tax lists. The Massachusetts collapse could well be a portent of the future in Springfield. Nobody knows. Like Russell, Springfield is taking a giant gamble. The decision-makers in our town are once again going out on a limb — the third such major gamble in the memory of people who have lived here since the closing of the machine tool shops. In addition to tax roulette there is a more insidious gamble. The bigger gamble is with Springfield’s health and public safety.
Even before the Russell biomass plant met its demise, the Massachusetts Medical Society took a firm position against biomass in their state. Perhaps that’s why the developer wants to build in our state, not theirs? We have two biomass plants already in Vermont. The one in Ryegate is a small plant. But Ryegate, unlike the large plant proposed for Springfield, is not in a residential neighborhood and it sits near major highways and the Connecticut River where access is not an issue. At Ryegate, a huge volume of tractor trailer traffic doesn’t move through small towns like Chester or Weathersfield — or downtown Springfield for that matter. Ryegate does not present the health and safety threats that Springfield will face if a huge, 35-megawatt biomass plant comes to town.
The other biomass plant in Vermont, the McNeil Station in Burlington, was built in a residential area in 1984 and this resulted in numerous excess costs, tax issues and delays, including those affecting permits according to the plant supervisor who supplied information in an official report on McNeil published in 2000. The location of McNeil in a residential area was the primary problem they encountered according to the plant manager.
The Springfield Town Plan, starting with the “Introduction” and ending with the maps at the end, does not support a large-scale biomass plant. On page 1, one of the first principles stated is, “Springfield intends to provide a superior environment and quality of life for its residents, yet it also pursues economic growth. True economic growth does not harm environments or people, but depends on them. The quality of Vermont’s environment is what attracts people to live and work here. The reputation of our environment lends value to the name of products made in Vermont. This Town Plan keeps this perspective in mind.” These are the words penned by the Springfield Planning Commission and Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission. The Town Plan does not embrace or create a place for biomass.
How in the world is a large wood-burning power plant going to “provide a superior environment and quality of life” for Springfield’s residents? The answer is it is not.
The plant signals archaic thinking and even worse public policy. Plan and plant are devoid of vision, imagination and creative thinking about economic development and it represents a giant step backward. We need to remind our feckless Select Board that southern Vermont presently has an excess of electrical power. We don’t need to rush into the future with yesterday’s technology.
While numerous examples in Vermont (including Springfield) show that small-scale biomass heating has its place, large, inefficient and polluting electricity generation from burning wood will not underwrite or foster economic development in Springfield despite all the promises.
Randall Susman lives in North Springfield.
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