February 3, 2013

4 Min Read
NIMBY Notes: Burned by Biomass

It is never easy to predict how the surrounding community will receive a biomass facility. These projects can come in various shapes and sizes, and be interpreted in many different ways by residents, and the result is a wide variety of responses to proposals. Where “conventional” municipal solid waste (MSW ) landfills tend to provoke a predictable and negative reaction, organics-processing facilities can be met with widespread support or passionate opposition.

Witness the negative side of the coin in Lithonia, Ga., a small community just east of Atlanta. There, residents are vocally opposing a proposed waste-to-energy plant that would produce electricity from the gasification of untreated wood like yard waste, lumber, and forestry residue. A few weeks ago, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division held a hearing for the project’s requested air quality permit, and the meeting was swamped with more than a hundred residents overwhelmingly opposed to the plant. In keeping with the topic of the night’s meeting, the primary concern was related to air pollution. This topic has been repeatedly stressed by “Citizens for a Healthy And Safe Environment” (CHASE), a local opposition group. Even a former Lithonia Mayor has voiced her opposition in a letter the editor.

The hostility should worry Green Energy Partners, the group that is pushing for the plant’s construction. Community opposition sank plans for a similar proposal in Lithonia city limits two years ago. The new proposal is for a similar facility in an unincorporated part of Lithonia, but area NIMBYs have already won a victory by causing a two-year delay for the project. The plant’s developers are probably correct in assuming that the Georgia EPD staff will respond more professionally to the project proposal than the elected officials who sank it two years ago, but that is no guarantee of success.

We’ve seen enough permitting battles to know that even state agencies are not immune to political pressure or public outcry. In general, these bodies are supposed to be “apolitical,” and focused purely on the project’s merits. In practice, they are just as human as anyone else, and can be moved by especially fervent opposition and support. Even in cases where the permitting authorities ultimately approve the proposal, they will sometimes delay or slow-walk the process as a way of demonstrating how clearly they have taken citizen concerns into account. Worse, these officials may sometimes request superfluous information or studies, or may impose unnecessarily restrictive constraints as conditions to approval. These reactions to NIMBY opposition can cost develop- ers time, consultant and legal hours, and operational profit, sometimes to the point where the project becomes economically unfeasible.

For these reasons, it’s important to understand the particular risks associated with rolling out a biomass facility to a community. In observing the Georgia EPD meeting, we noticed recurring comments that residents did not trust that the plant would consume only untreated wood, as promised. Uncertainty of a facility’s intake is especially common with biomass plants. For better or for worse, most people think they know what goes into a MSW landfill, because they produce and dispose of household trash in their own home. They know that they aren’t regularly throwing away toxic waste or concentrated carcinogens. It’s a case of “the devil you know versus the devil you don’t.” “Biomass,” as a concept, is vague enough that a scared abutter can imagine all sorts of harmful substances.

There also is a surprising lack of understanding about the environmental benefits of biomass facilities. It is a tre- mendous irony that organics-processing plants frequently engender environmental opposition when these facilities are a key tool in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. They also play an important role in siphoning some organic materials out of the waste stream, extending the life of conventional landfills and reducing the need to open new ones.

Aspiring biomass facility developers would do well to remember these vulnerabilities as they roll out their projects. Taking steps to allay concerns about what actually makes up the plant’s intake (say, by an agreed-upon citizen inspection routine) and heavily promoting the environmental benefits of the facility are important actions that can stop a NIMBY mob before it forms. Remember, those Georgia EPD officials might have relatives in Lithonia.

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