Dr. William Sammons, an expert on the health and environmental effects of biomass combustion, has traveled to southern Indiana from the East Coast numerous times to testify at public hearings against burning biomass for energy.
Biomass includes everything biological in origin: crops, trees, animals, manure, sewage sludge, and construction and demolition debris, which unavoidably contain heavy metals and fungicides. Burning it produces significant threats to the environmental and human health.
“Biomass is dirtier than coal,” Sammons once told citizens fighting proposed biomass combustors in southern Indiana. “Forget it.”
Sammons’ warning was but one of a number of reasons why citizens in Indiana’s Crawford, Scott and Dubois counties oppose biomass combustion.
On Dec. 30, 2008, Liberty Green Renewables LLC told the Crawford County Board of Commissioners of plans to build an $80 million, 28-megawatt biomass-to-electricity combustor on a 110-acre site north of Milltown. It was to be developed by Liberty Green and the Macquarie Group, a financial firm.
The plant was designed to use woody material from numerous local forest-product industrial sources, including the remnants of logging, land clearing, pallet manufacturing, furniture and cabinet manufacturing, sawmills, and tree-trimming and storm damage.
Liberty Green later repeatedly amended its permit to include such biomass sources as scrap wood from demolition. It was prohibited by permit from burning wood contaminated with paint or other coatings, or chemically treated, such as pressure treatment with arsenic. Some lumber receives treatment with fungicides at the log stage. Later Liberty Green considered burning switchgrass, which is poisonous to horses and goats.
Crawford County politicians and many local businesses favored the Liberty Green plan, citing jobs as their reason. However, as citizens would show, the combustor would have brought only about 25 permanent jobs to the area.
Toxic chemicals in seemingly bucolic Crawford County’s air were already an issue when Liberty Green came along. According to USA Today, in 2008 Milltown Elementary School was in the 30th percentile for U.S. schools in terms of carcinogens and other toxics in the air. The polluters responsible are several industries in Louisville, Ky., Thyssenkrupp Waupaca (plant 5) in Tell City and Duke Energy in New Albany.
Seventy local residents met in a Milltown restaurant on Jan. 20, 2009, and formed Concerned Citizens of Crawford County. They were worried about pollution from the combustor and the possibility that nearby forests, including including Clark State Forest, would be logged to feed it. Concerned Citizens decided to seek a county ordinance that would make the combustor impossible to build.
According to a Nov. 23, 2011, story by Chris Adams in the Crawford County Clarion News, on Feb. 26, 2009, citizens packed a meeting of the Crawford County Board of Commissioners. Then on April 14, Concerned Citizens asked the Crawford County Council to deny tax-abatement requests from Liberty Green and to contact state and federal officials opposing the location of the proposed plant.
On Apr. 22, 2009, the Crawford County Board of Commissioners voted 3-0 to request a federal environmental impact study be performed before the state issued permits for the plant.
On Sep. 24 the recently formed North Milltown Landowners Association presented the commissioners with a sample ordinance that would require the operator of any combustor that incinerates more than 5 tons of wood, wood products, plant waste or biomass per day to obtain a permit from the commissioners.
The commissioners didn’t pass the ordinance, but they did vote to ask their attorney to contact an Indianapolis legal firm for a price quote ($20,000) on obtaining advice on the commissioners’ authority over such an ordinance and requiring a federal environmental impact study. The county council decided to allot funds for consulting the attorneys.
On Jan. 13, 2010, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) told an audience of some 200 at a public hearing that although the locals opposed the combustor, the agency had to follow established guidelines when considering an application for an air permit.
The ordinance was “terrible,” as farmer and Concerned Citizens member Cara Beth Jones said in a phone interview. The citizens protested it, insisting that the county produce one acceptable to the activists and their attorneys.
The ordinance had “sneaky wording,” Jones said, to the effect that if the combustor became a public utility, the county wouldn’t be able to regulate it.
At a public meeting on March 30, 23 people spoke out against the facility and demanded a county ordinance requiring the proposed plant to be licensed.
On May 24, at a second meeting considering a license, the citizens objected to the ordinance on the grounds that it was “too weak and ambiguous,” according to the Clarion News. The commissioners decided to permit written comments through June 3 so that a new, final ordinance could be drafted.
The second, improved ordinance made Liberty Green “jump through a lot of hoops,” Jones said. In other words, it required the company to spend a lot of money to fulfill its requirements.
Liberty Green would not be allowed to dump the plant’s wastewater in the Blue River under the new proposed ordinance.
Liberty Green’s application for a solid-waste permit from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) and state regulations for solid waste disposal were pretty easy to read, Jones said.
During the public comment period in the solid-waste-permitting process, the activists reviewed the state’s regulations and compared them with what Liberty Green claimed to do in its solid-waste-permit application.
The activists and their lawyers found 14 deficiencies in the application with regard to the state’s regulations. That meant Liberty Green had to take some action, answer lots of questions from IDEM and spend more money. That helped deter the company.
Concerned Citizens found problems with the site as well as flaws in the solid-waste-permit application. According to the state, Jones said, the solid waste was supposed to be dumped at least 300 feet from the nearest residence, but the nearest house was less than 300 feet away. The site was half a mile from the Blue River and less than a mile from Milltown Elementary School.
Another flaw pertained to dirt removal. The state required the company to remove 21 inches of dirt from the site, but the citizens proved that because of sinkholes and caves, there weren’t 21 inches of soil over all the site, which was in a watershed. The regulations required Liberty Green to test 17 places over the entire property, but the citizens discovered that it tested only one.
Liberty Green didn’t attempt to answer any questions on the solid-waste permit.
The air-permit-application process was harder for the citizens to deal with. IDEM approved the air permit, and it was up to the citizens to act in opposition. There had been so many problems with the solid-waste permit that Concerned Citizens suspected problems with the air permits.
Together with Concerned Citizens of Scott County, the Crawford County group filed an appeal with IDEM on the air permit. The goal was to stop the air permit even though IDEM had approved it. At that point, Jones said, it seemed worth it to continue the fight with an appeal.
One local landowner paid for a full-page ad in the local newspaper that documented all the pollutants that would be emitted from the plant’s smokestack. Liberty Green, meanwhile, insisted that nothing harmful would come out of the stack, though it had had to list the emissions in its air-permit application.
The 80-some different pollutants, Liberty Green’s map of emissions showed, would fall on and around the site, not blow away, as Liberty Green claimed. That, Jones said, “stirred things up.” Further, the company left the Blue River off the map — apparently deliberately.
On Sep. 26, 2011, Liberty Green sent IDEM a letter asking for permanent revocation of two air permits approved in July 2010 and an acid-rain permit issued in October 2010 for the corporation’s proposed biomass combustors in Crawford and Scott counties.
The appeal against the air permits was in full swing when Liberty Green withdrew the permits. That didn’t come as a shock to the activists, Jones said, but it was then that people started to feel a sense of victory.
“I don’t know if we even thought that we had really won,” she said. “I still worry a lot. Liberty Green could return, or another corporation could approach the county with a proposal for a biomass incinerator or other type of polluting facility. The site still belongs to the Macquarie Group.”
To put pressure on county officials, Concerned Citizens kept the issue alive by ensuring that at least several people attended every county commissioners and council meeting and brought up the proposed combustor.
The fight against the combustor was a collective, community effort, Jones said. The money for the struggle came from people pitching in when needed. Ads in the local newspaper and yard signs weren’t cheap. One person would offer to pay for an ad one week, and someone else would volunteer to buy yard signs.
Jones said she issued a call for help to every organization she could find at the start of the struggle. Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana helped greatly by sending a representative to testify at several public meetings.
The local paper helped by always reporting on both sides of the issue after public meetings.
Another factor that worked in the citizens’ favor was that elections were coming up, and Concerned Citizens made the combustor an issue.
People were struggling to survive, Jones said, and didn’t have much money, but “they were fighting to save their homes,” environment and way of life.
Linda Greene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.