Oregon: Biomass Battleground

- by Samantha Chirillo, Energy Justice Network

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"99","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"319","style":"width: 420px; height: 279px; float: left; margin-left: 7px; margin-right: 7px;","title":"Seneca Sustainable Energy biomass power facility","width":"480"}}]]Timber Town Eugene, Oregon buzzes along nearly oblivious to the forest destruction and herbicide poisoning around it. Much like a frog in a pot of water brought to a slow boil, the timber industry relies on what anthropologist and author Jared Diamond referred to as “landscape amnesia” in his book, Collapse — slow environmental degradation that would be offensive if only at a faster pace.

The scenario with the Seneca Sustainable Energy biomass power facility, located adjacent to the Seneca timber mill, is disturbingly similar. The State and local air authorities might let Seneca have its way, but no ad campaign on the part of Seneca is going to hide the reality that biomass energy, like the chemical clearcut regime it emerged from, is a dirty, destructive dead-end.

The Seneca cogeneration facility, first permitted in October 2009 under Title V of the Clean Air Act, is applying for a permit modification to be regulated as a major source of pollution and increase its Particulate Matter (PM)10 pollution by 3 tons per year. Although Seneca uses the best available control technology (BACT) for PM10, it does not for the more dangerous PM2.5, which would also increase with the modification.

However, the recent federal appellate court ruling ending biomass industry exemptions from the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) tailoring rule, which limits CO2 emissions, might be a spoiler for Seneca. With the modified permit not due till September and local authority permitting decision not till December, there may be time to appeal. The exemption sunsets July 2014, and the if the modification would increase CO2 by more than 75,000 tons per year, then CO2 and other pollutants would be reviewed and BACT applied.

Too bad Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB), which buys Seneca's biomass electricity, recently cut its conservation and efficiency program that was reducing energy demand and helping ratepayers. Although a public utility, EWEB has kept most of its contract with Seneca secret. A reliable source claims that EWEB is buying electricity from Seneca at $80 per megawatt, when it could be buying it from Bonneville Power Administration for $30 per megawatt.

Besides a bad deal for ratepayers, the Seneca facility is life-threatening deal for the people living closest to it. The "West Eugene Environmental Justice — Environmental Health Assessment Report,” recently released by Beyond Toxics, shows that 99 percent of air toxics in Eugene are emitted in west Eugene. This EPA-funded research also showed that children in the west Eugene zip code, where Seneca is located, have a 14.3 percent asthma rate, versus 8.1 percent in schools in other Eugene zip codes. The west Eugene zip also has the highest level of residents below the poverty line and the highest percentage of Hispanics, as compared to the other five zip codes that comprise Eugene.

To the southeast, in Lakeview, Oregon, Iberdrola is soon to submit its permit application for a new biomass energy facility. Perhaps too soon to benefit from the recent court ruling, this would be the third time that Iberdrola was allowed to be grandfathered under older, weaker State rules, resulting in three-fold more PM2.5 pollution than if it had to abide by newer, federal rules.

Klamath Falls, where Paul Fouch and other Save Our Rural Oregon activists defeated a facility recently, and Lakeview, Oregon, had among the highest PM2.5 particulate pollution in the U.S. for several consecutive days earlier this year. On Thursday, April 25, 2013, EPA Director of Ecosystems, Tribal and Public Affairs, Region 10 and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Air Quality Administrator Andy Ginsberg were in Lakeview to discuss the community's participation in the EPA’s new PM Advance Program. Stating that Lakeview has met nonattainment status but is not yet formally designated under this Program, Lakeview will avoid designation and pollution restriction under the Clean Air Act for yet another EPA planning cycle (2014-2019) by developing its own PM reductions plan. Find more on this program at: http://www.epa.gov/ozoneadvance/basicPM.html

The lack of information from either Iberdrola or DEQ Air or Water Quality Divisions addressing the contaminated aquifer under the applicant’s proposed facility is yet another issue. Legality is questionable on the forest end, too. Federal agencies have already completed Memoranda of Understanding to feed the facility, in part from the Federal "Sustained Yield" Unit, what was once a ground-breaking forestry model.

Iberdrola is looking at the forest burned by the nearby 2012 Barry Point Fire as an obvious source of biomass. The Collins Pine Mill there, retooling to handle larger diameter trees, has its eye on this burned forest, too. So much for the industry claim that logging and biomass burning are used to prevent fire! Organizations including Center for Biological Diversity and the John Muir Project have been working to establish this burned forest area as critical habitat for the black-backed woodpecker.

Both the Seneca and Iberdrola facilities are examples of how Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality may have failed to meet the rigidity of Congressional intent under the Clean Air Act, according to Chris Zinda, citizen activist of Save Our Rural Oregon in Lakeview.

Top biomass promoters in Oregon, including Governor Kitzhaber (D), Senator Ron Wyden (D), and Congressman Peter DeFazio (D), tout Oregon as a huge, underutilized biomass fuel and power region. How much will the public benefit from the latest extractive industrial ploy? How many jobs will it bring in contrast to medical bills from the increased pollution? How much revenue will it return to at least offset public subsidies?

The Seneca facility requires huge volumes of chips and even whole trees, having storage for only two weeks of fuel for its burner. The Oregon Department of Energy is revising its Biomass Producer and Collector Tax Credit program. The credit for agricultural crop and woody biomass production and collection currently stands at $10/green ton. Not only are the logging and logging roads publicly subsidized, so was construction of the Seneca facility and is the never-ending transport of biomass to the facility.

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Seneca is getting trees from as far as Forest Service “stewardship” contract projects, collaborations between the timber industry, agency, and environmental groups, east of the Cascades, 150-200 miles away. These subsidies will attract more Senecas to Oregon. They already are helping other wood products businesses, like Bear Mountain Wood Pellet facility. Bear Mountain gets much of its wood from Seneca and received a state credit for its dryer, has exported pellets to Japan and shipped as far east as Massachusetts.

Highlighted recently in the national press and on an Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign network conference call, in the Southeast U.S. the burgeoning biomass industry heralds the final stages of forest exploitation, punching in new, heavily subsidized, thoroughly poisoned tree farms, wood pellet facilities, and terminals for export to the United Kingdom. Although seemingly far from this dismal scenario yet, Oregon is on track to become the next Southeast.

Already manipulated like a third world country, Oregon suffers from increasing raw log and chip exports. According to Public Interest Forester and Director of Our Forests Roy Keene, heavily undervalued public old growth trees are chipped as “culls” because of rot or fire scars.

"Weak Oregon Forest Practice Rules and an untaxed timber industry are reducing the private forest to fiber suitable only for burning while putting more pressure on public forest to provide construction-grade trees," Keene explains. "What will be the effects of subsidized biomass fuel harvest be on our already contested forests?"

Roy Keene worked with former Lane County Commissioner Rob Handy and current candidate for county commissioner Kevin Matthews to start Conversations on the Forest, a series of public discussions that started in Eugene, located in Lane County, totaling nine so far, to discuss these matters. The July Conversation was on biomass energy, and the next in September is titled, "Fire and Water." Wildfires are currently burning in Southern Oregon.

Congressman DeFazio and Senator Wyden both propose aggressively increasing logging on public forests in Oregon, DeFazio going so far as to privatize BLM-managed forests, under the guise of creating jobs, fire risk reduction, and "renewable" biomass energy. Biomass energy opponents in Lane County and Lakeview agree that public money is better spent creating defensible spaces around homes in the urban/wildland interface than in remote critical habitat areas currently proposed to be logged.

How can we protect public health, our public forests, and the climate from the increasingly global demand for energy and biomass energy and fuels? Especially from economically powerful countries like China who consumed their own forests centuries ago and are already consuming ours?

These are the unspoken realities of the emerging so-called “clean and sustainable” biomass industry in Oregon. Questions Senator Wyden and Congressman DeFazio, in their rush to do the bidding of their corporate masters, are not asking. Wyden is Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and DeFazio is Ranking Member of the House Natural Resources Committee. As senior legislators in Congress, they wield the power to open up public forests and waterways to biomass extraction and energy production, putting a dirty industry ahead of cost-effective and job-creating conservation, efficiency, heat pump, and solar technologies.

With help from its Congressional liaison Carl Ross, Director of Save America's Forests, the Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign is pressuring Wyden and DeFazio. The Campaign is still gathering sign-ons to a letter to Wyden.

Samantha Chirillo, M.P.A., M.S., based in Eugene, OR, is a Co-Coordinator of the Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign with Energy Justice Network. She is also coordinator of Conversations on the Forest.