MONTPELIER — State forestry officials raised questions Thursday about just how sustainable a wood-fired energy plant proposed for North Springfield would be.
The developers of the 35-megawatt North Springfield Sustainable Energy Project have proposed an inadequate wood harvesting program, said Steven Sinclair, director of forests for the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, during hearings before the Vermont Public Service Board.
Sinclair, who was on the stand for most of Thursday, also said his office had removed the word “renewable” from its website when describing wood-fired projects, based on “new information and research.”
“The science on both renewableness and carbon neutrality is in question,” Sinclair added.
The North Springfield project is a joint undertaking by Winstanley Enterprises and Weston Solutions. Winstanley, which is based in Concord, Mass., owns a large property in the North Springfield Industrial Park.
Sinclair said the harvest plan proposed by the North Springfield project would largely depend on whole-tree harvesting.
Such harvesting removes much of the organic material that is needed to regenerate the forest and maintain forest health, said Sinclair, whose agency has instead suggested leaving at least one third of the slash, or forestry debris, from logging, in the forest to decay and replenish the soil and support wildlife.
Sinclair has also proposed that the North Springfield project pay the state $200,000 to monitor the forest harvesting, saying that two full-time foresters will be needed to monitor the logging projects.
Sinclair admitted under questioning by Kimberly Hayden, the attorney for the North Springfield project, that it was the only project he knew in which the state asked for direct compensation for oversight.
“We don’t have sufficient staff to take on the additional burden,” Sinclair said.
Later, Sandy Wilmot, a forest health specialist for the forestry office, said she had made recommendations to improve the project’s harvesting and procurement guidelines.
The project’s “wood harvesting policy is not robust enough to conclude that this project will not result in an undue adverse effect on the natural environment, namely forest health and sustainability,” Wilmot wrote in her prefiled testimony.
According to Wilmot, Vermont logging projects produce 1.2 million “green” tons of saw logs a year, along with 1.5 million tons of lower-quality wood, which includes 300,000 cords of firewood a year.
North Springfield would use 450,000 “green” tons of wood chips a year, with 300,000 of that coming from Vermont.
Wilmot said her proposed standards for the North Springfield plant were stricter and based on more modern science than plans in place for the state’s existing two large-scale biomass plants, the 50-megawatt McNeil Generating Station in Burlington and the 22-megawatt Ryegate plant. Those projects are based in part on 30-year-old forestry science, she said.
Wilmot said the North Springfield project was the first project to be reviewed by the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation and that she felt the standards should be used for all biomass projects.
Wilmot said the North Springfield project would “leave a huge footprint” in southern Vermont, and would put a big demand on the existing forests.
Sinclair said the earlier projects were reviewed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. He said a 2010 rewrite of the McNeil plant’s forest harvest policy did not involve his department and they were not consulted on the issue of forest health.
Hayden, the attorney representing the North Springfield project, questioned Sinclair and Wilmot closely, and objected repeatedly to the line of questions posed to them by state agency attorneys and attorneys for the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the North Springfield Action Group, which is opposed to the project.
Hayden did elicit an admission from Sinclair that Vermont was growing more forested.
“We’re No. 3,” Sinclair said, up from No. 4, in terms of forest concentration.
Between 75 and 80 percent of Vermont is forested today, he said, or around 4.55 million acres.
Thursday marked what is believed to be the end of the technical hearings for the project before Hearing Officer John Cotter. While declining to discuss the hearings Thursday, the project’s technical director Dan Ingold said they were hoping for a decision from the Public Service Board later this spring.
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