Study says burning repurposed wood could harm children

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Pennsylvania's support of renewable biomass energy, which is produced by burning repurposed wood, could endanger schoolchildren and those living in areas of the state with poor air quality, according to a new study funded by the environmentally minded Heinz Endowments.

A dozen Pennsylvania schools have moved to biomass burners lately because it is cheaper than oil and gas, but the report from the Massachusetts-based biomass critics Partnership for Policy Integrity says emissions regulations on the small-sized burners are minimal and air quality near the schools is not monitored by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

More than $70 million in state and federal funding has gone into supporting biomass energy and wood pellet production in Pennsylvania, the report states, some of it in areas with already-poor air.

That includes $1.08 million to Tri-State Biofuels for a manufacturing plant in Fayette, a county that does not meet EPA ozone health standards. The Piney Creek biomass facility in Clarion County received nearly $872,000 in government funding and burns railroad ties and utility polls that can contain toxic chemicals, the report states.

Since biomass energy is produced by burning existing wood scraps and sawdust from mill operations and chips from forestry and land-clearing, it is considered a "green" energy source and makes up about half of the renewable energy produced nationwide.

Supporters acknowledge the process produces carbon dioxide but the trees that produce the wood can absorb the gas.

Critics say the expanding industry will ultimately destroy forest growth, lead to more emission of pollution, and should be subject to stricter regulation and study.

Nationally, it is opposed by the American Lung Association, which stated in a June 2011 energy policy paper that "the combustion of wood and other biomass sources poses a significant threat to human health."

The ALA also said it "strongly opposes the combustion of wood and other biomass sources at schools and institutions with vulnerable populations."

In Pennsylvania, there are 100 existing or proposed biomass-burning facilities statewide and, as of 2010, 0.29 percent of the state's power was generated by wood-derived fuels.

Still, the state has backed incentives such as the "Fuels for Schools and Beyond" program to subsidize the switch to biomass fuel, saving school districts from $60,000 to $190,000 annually.

In Clearfield, the district burns 640 tons of biomass at $35 per ton, the report says, saving it almost $89,000 in heating costs over old boilers designed for oil and gas.

Yet emissions rates of particulate matter from such biomass boilers at schools are seven times worse than those for oil boilers, the report says, and four times greater for carbon monoxide.

Officials at the DEP had not yet fully reviewed the report, but said the state's biomass regulation is "robust" and parried some of the report's conclusions.

"Thanks to a fair and predictable permitting program, DEP has made significant and documented improvements in air quality statewide. Pennsylvania's oversight of the burning of biomass, a renewable fuel, is a major part of this," said DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday.

"When these facilities are permitted, DEP determines the best available technology to be installed, so the contention that these facilities need 'state of the art controls' is deliberately misguided. DEP's permitting and oversight of air quality issues is effective and robust; and from what we have read so far, this report does not do justice to properly characterizing the emission controls on these facilities that protect the environment and public health."

For Pennsylvania the report recommends:

• Requiring stronger, "state of the art" emissions controls and air quality monitoring for boilers near schools and other institutions, such as hospitals or colleges.

• Barring biomass facilities from areas with existing air pollution problems.

• Rules keeping possibly poisonous construction and demolition debris from the fuel stream.

• Reconsidering state funding for the facilities.

• Monitoring how the industry impacts forests and the problem of deer over-browsing, in which the animals kill tree seedlings and hamper forest regrowth.

The study was funded by $34,000 from the Heinz Endowments, which has a focus on environmental issues. It will be posted in full Wednesday at www.pfpi.net and www.heinz.org.

education - state - health

Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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