When Biomass Profiteering Trumps Children’s Health


For many people, nothing typifies the American Dream more than buying a house in a small town to start a family. Five years ago school teacher Robert Hughes and his wife purchased a home in Rothschild, Wisconsin, population 5,000 and had two children, now three years and three months old. Today, the Hughes’ dream is about to literally go up in smoke with a biomass power incinerator under construction directly across the street, a facility that would add more asthma-causing particulate matter and carcinogenic volatile organic compounds to the air per unit of energy than a coal plant.

The Hughes family, their neighbors, and many Rothschild residents fear for their health and the health of their children——the incinerator is a half mile of a 2,600 student elementary school—as the 50 megawatt Domtar and WE Energies wood-burning power facility comes closer to completion. Developers aim to have the incinerator operational by the middle of 2013, smack dab in the middle of this low income and middle class community.

When Hughes first heard about the proposal back in 2010 he decided to investigate, knowing next to nothing about biomass and its impacts on public health or the environment. He attended a meeting held by the developers, but “didn’t really learn anything” from their presentation. Upon leaving the building, Hughes passed a few people handing out information with some questions about the facility.

As soon as Hughes got home he sat down with his wife to look at the literature and right away came across some “red flags.” Before long, Hughes joined Save Our Air Resources (SOAR), a grassroots community group that was looking into some of the public health and environmental concerns from industrial-scale biomass energy. They asked questions of the developers and town officials but it ended up being the “high road to China to get an answer.”

Hughes first major concern arose after researching the validity of a radio ad claiming that the new biomass facility would make the air 30% cleaner than it already was—which seemed too good to be true for a community within forty miles of four coal burning plants. In fact, according to Hughes, it turned out that Rothschild’s local levels of particulate matter 2.5—a byproduct of combustion so small that particles can lodge deep into the lungs, into the bloodstream, and enter organs—were already extremely high. The developer’s announcement regarding local air quality was similar to the claims made by developers across the US: that their incinerators not only won’t pollute, but will actually improve air quality—despite basic science and common sense pointing to the contrary.

According to Dr. William Sammons, a pediatrician from Massachusetts who helped educate Rothschild community members about the health risks to both children and adults from biomass incineration, “the project will emit dioxin, deadly particulates, and other pollution that contributes to asthma, heart disease and more.”

On top of the air pollution emissions from the facility, which, aside from particulate matter and volatile organic compounds include carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and other toxic air pollutants, Rothschild residents will soon have to breathe in the diesel fumes from “120 in and 120 out semis bringing in wood” to the facility. “When it rains, when the air’s not moving that crap stays local.” Hughes noted. “Talk about a local community getting hammered by air pollution.”

SOAR, with Hughes as a member, along with the dedication and hard work of other Rothschild residents such as Paul Schwantes, fought back against the impending incinerator in the media, on the streets, and in the courtroom. “We kept pushing for wind or solar. Solar would’ve saved $60 million,” according to Hughes, noting that Wisconsin is at the same latitude as Germany, the world’s leader in solar power.

SOAR eventually hired on a team of attorneys to try to obtain an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the biomass incinerator in the hopes that “if they did a review, it wouldn’t be approved because of the impact on air quality.” Due to several unforeseen obstacles that ultimately proved too much for the opposition, SOAR was unable to get the EIS.

“It’s a marathon not a sprint,” is how Hughes described the grassroots opposition to biomass, “doing it for the next generation.”

Despite considerable effort on the part of SOAR members, the community resistance was ultimately overcome by the influences of big business, a local media who labeled the biomass opposition as NIMBY’s (after receiving advertising money from developers), and even some environmental groups—the Sierra Club supported the facility as the result of a prior court settlement. Developers broke ground on the facility earlier in 2012.

The developers “sold the community in with beautiful posters,” though the final facility added more stacks than were originally presented to the public and moved the power source to the “front, next to residential houses.” Hughes specifically chose to build his home in Rothschild because he refused to live under power lines due to concern for his family’s health. Now Hughes, his wife, and his two young children live directly across the street from a high voltage yard, “three football fields away from fifty megawatts of power lines,” according to Hughes. “We don’t want to expose our kids to that.”

“I wish I had the option to move, but I don’t,” said Hughes.

Jobs were the main selling point for the incinerator in a community in the heart of Wisconsin suffering from the economic downturn. “What they don’t tell you is where the jobs are going to come from,” Hughes said, pointing out that many of the cars he’d seen recently in the incinerator parking lot have license plates from Michigan and Minnesota.

One unexpected boon from the anti-biomass effort in Rothschild, though ultimately unsuccessful, was that so many members of the community banded together: “The great thing is a lot of us are still friends,” said Hughes.

Josh Schlossberg wrtites for the Biomass Monitor, where this article originally appeared.


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