MADISON — A nonexistent biomass boiler at Madison Paper Industries is part of a recently released report that aims to draw attention to the hazards of burning wood for fuel.
The report, released Wednesday by the Partnership for Policy Integrity, blames lack of government oversight for allowing biomass burners to emit more pollution than those that run on coal. It analyzes permits that were granted to 88 sites around the country and it concludes that by burning wood and in some cases, hazardous materials such as tires and construction debris, the permitted companies have contributed to pollution rates exceeding those of the coal industry.
Names of the 88 sites used in the study are not listed, but Mary Booth, director of the partnership and author of the report, said in an interview that a permit for a biomass power plant at Madison Paper Industries was among them.
Officials told the Morning Sentinel in 2010 that the $25 million plant would add a wood boiler to the mill’s oil-fueled ones, cutting the mill’s oil use in half and possibly adding eight to 10 jobs. It was going to use parts of the trees not used in paper-making that the mill discarded and require building a 10,000-square-foot or larger building on about two acres on mill land.
But the Madison Paper biomass plant was never built, mainly because of financial reasons, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and Madison Paper officials. The 2010 permit cited in the study was submitted by a Virginia-based company, which at the time was proposing to lease land from Madison Paper and to sell steam to the Maine company.
Booth, referencing emission rates for nitrogen oxide in the 2010 permit, said Madison Paper is “emitting three times the nitrogen oxide they would be if they were using good combustion control.
“The problem is they can really gas out the neighborhood,” Booth said. “The total tons they emit may not be as much as a larger plant, but the intensity per hour is really high. I definitely think they should have been required to use emissions controls. It is a pretty filthy little plant.”
Russ Drechsel, president of Madison Paper Industries, said the the mill had a different owner when the boiler was being considered. The mill, which never installed such a boiler, was sold in 2011 to UPM-Kymmene Corp., the world’s largest magazine paper producer.
“We did at one point three or four years ago consider a biomass facility but that was terminated a long time ago. I don’t even know what they’re talking about,” said Drechsel, who said he was surprised to learn that the company was being cited in the report.
Booth defended the report and the connection to Madison Paper, saying there is a link even though the study makes no explicit mention of Madison Paper Industries. What matters is the “terrible permit” that was approved, Booth said. In a press release to the Morning Sentinel about the study, a group spokesman said “the Madison plant was part of our study.”
Drechsel said the mill was not going to finance the biomass project and was not part of the permitting process. Madison Paper operates on oil and natural gas and is in the process of converting to 100 percent natural gas, which officials expect to be in place as soon as next week.
The partnership, which is based in Massachusetts, is a nonprofit research organization that says it aims to inform the public and policy makers on environmental issues, with a focus on biomass energy. The group says the purpose of the study is to show how lack of government regulation has contributed to pollution by biomass boilers, and in doing so links the permitted plants to an increase in biomass pollution.
Booth was not aware the boiler hadn’t been built, but she said it didn’t need to have been for the purposes of the study. The reason that the study uses permits for plants that were never built is to show what government agencies have allowed, regardless of whether they are built or not, Booth said.
The partnership’s top criticism regarding the permit was a lack of controls on the emission of nitrogen oxide, a gas that contributes to ozone, said Booth. The report also states that every permit that was examined took advantage of regulatory loopholes in the Clean Air Act.
“The goal of the report was to assess the state of biomass energy permitting in the U.S. right now, so we collected a lot of issued permits — and as we say early in the report, we acknowledge that a number of those facilities have been canceled, or will never be built. That doesn’t invalidate the fact that the states are issuing these very lax permits, however,” she said.
She said the study is a “meta-analysis of 88 air permits for bioenergy facilities, to look at how many of them were exploiting various loopholes, under-representing their emissions … (and) Madison Paper was one of those 88 permits.
“Biomass power plants are also a danger to the climate, emitting nearly 50 percent more CO2 per megawatt generated than the next biggest carbon polluter, coal,” the study states.
Biomass plants can emit 150 times more nitrogen oxides, 600 percent more volatile organic compounds and 125 percent more carbon monoxide than a coal plant per megawatt hour, according to the report, “Trees, Trash and Toxics: How Biomass Has Become the New Coal.”
Marc Cone, director of air quality control for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said the DEP stands by its permitting decision and that the 2010 permit granted to Intrinergy LLC. would have reduced emissions from the Madison plant through an agreement to sell steam to the mill, which could in turn have been used in the paper-making process.
Booth, though, was critical of Maine regulations.
“It’s not exactly known for it’s rigorous environmental regulations,” she said.
Cone would not comment on the specifics of the partnership study but said that the department generally takes into consideration a wide variety of factors in the permitting process. “There is no one energy source that is the best,” he said. “Every energy supply has its advantages and disadvantages and it is possible to manipulate data to support an idea.”
In the case of the Madison permit, the biomass boiler would have been a co-generation operation, which is more environmentally friendly than a stand-alone power plant, he said.
Overall, the mill’s emission rates would have been lowered by its ability to buy steam produced by the biomass burner. The heat from the steam would have reduced the burning of number 6 oil, a byproduct of refining crude oil, that the mill was burning at the time.
Biomass energy, which relies mainly on plant sources such as crop and wood residue, is widely used in pulp and paper mills, including many in Maine, said Cone. Another Maine paper mill, Verso Paper in Bucksport, is mentioned in the report and scrutinized for its high emission rates while at the same time receiving state and federal subsidies for renewable energy.
Bill Cohen, spokesman for the Bucksport mill, said the report is inaccurate and doesn’t reflect the current operating permit for the mill. The mill was not contacted to verify any of the information in the report, he said.
“They have an agenda and they took some information and tried to advance their agenda,” Cohen said. “Some of the numbers in the report that they claim are part of our permit don’t match.”
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368 firstname.lastname@example.org