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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Sustainability Of Springfield Biomass Plant In Question

The State Public Service Board is hearing testimony on a proposed wood-chip-fired power plant in North Springfield.

The 35 megawatt project would be Vermont's largest biomass plant.

Developers of the proposed plant say it will create jobs and help the state meet its goals for renewable energy.

Winstanley Enterprises is the company behind the plan, and it built North Springfield Industrial Park, where the plant would be built.

Winstanley partnered with Weston Solutions, which specializes in sustainable power projects.

But sustainability remains a key question in the application.

Brian Shupe is director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, an environmental advocacy group taking part in the hearings.

The biggest question, Shupe says, relates to the impact of the project on forest health and the surrounding region, and whether or not there's an adequate wood supply in the area to supply the facility without an adverse impact on forest health. And those are the questions we're asking.

The plant expects to burn more than 400,000 tons of wood chips annually.

Chris Recchia is the Commissioner of the Department of Public Service, which advocates for rate payers interests.

Recchia says wood is renewable only if the whole forest ecosystem stays healthy enough to produce new trees to balance out carbon emissions from trees that are harvested and burned.

Probably most critical,Recchia says, is making sure that the harvesting of the wood is done in a way that enables the forest to regrow and to support that amount of wood coming off the forest on a perpetual basis. Then it will truly be renewable and it truly will help with carbon impacts under that type of scenario.

Proponents of the plant wouldn't comment while the hearings are going on. But the company has said in written testimony that its harvest guidelines could improve forest health.

There are also questions about whether the power the plant would produce is needed.

And local opponents have organized the North Springfield Action Group. Spokesman Robert Kischko worries about respiratory problems from plant emissions.

It's going to release nearly forty tons of particulates, Kischko says, which are the very fine particulate matter that they can't filter out. The truck traffic is completely out of scale.

Kischko adds that burning wood to make electricity is much less efficient than burning it to make heat.

The company says that will be addressed by circulating excess heat through the North Springfield Industrial Park. Winstanley hopes the cheap heat will attract new industries and jobs - which it says the town of Springfield badly needs.

Susan Keese was VPR's southern Vermont reporter, based at the VPR studio in Manchester at Burr & Burton Academy. After many years as a print journalist and magazine writer, Susan started producing stories for VPR in 2002. From 2007-2009, she worked as a producer, helping to launch the noontime show Vermont Edition. Susan has won numerous journalism awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for her reporting on VPR. She wrote a column for the Sunday Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Her work has appeared in Vermont Life, the Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times and other publications, as well as on NPR.
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