‘Green’ energy not always so clean

Ronnie Greene | iWatch News

Flambeau River Papers LLC in Park Falls, Wisc., uses pellets made with wood waste and a small amount of plastic binder as fuel to replace coal. John Flesher/The Associated Press

Just 12 miles apart in the belly of California, a pair of 12.5 megawatt power plants fouled the air with a toxic brew of pollutants — nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ammonia and particulate matter. They released thick plumes and visible dust. They failed to install proper monitoring equipment, and failed to file reports on their emissions.

Another instance of coal plants polluting the environment?

Not quite. These are biomass power plants, part of the so-called green wave of the future.

Pitched as a smarter, environmentally-friendly way to produce power, the electricity generating stations are spreading nationwide, spurred by hundreds of millions in stimulus dollars and big muscle support from members of Congress and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Generating electricity by burning trees, construction debris, poultry litter and agricultural mass has become a key element in a larger push to develop sources of alternative energy, and popular because it’s been around for decades and is reliable.

Yet green energy is not always so green.

EPA spokeswoman Margot Perez-Sullivan said the plants were investigated on a case-by-case basis so the agency could not presume anything about Clean Air Act compliance of the biomass power industry in general. She said due to the confidential nature of EPA’s enforcement issues, it could not provide any additional details on the investigation.

Worries about the potential health effects have sent ripples through communities where new plants are being built. The industry and its allies in Washington, meanwhile, have managed to delay for three years finalizing a study into the legitimacy of claims that biomass pollution fouls the air and harms health , perhaps even contributing to asthma and heart disease.

Regulators this year slapped the two San Joaquin Valley plants, owned by Massachusetts’ Global Ampersand LLC, with $835,000 in penalties for sweeping alleged violations of the federal Clean Air Act and local regulations. The company agreed to pay the fines and clean up its act without admitting to the violations.

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