Bioenergy in Pennsylvania

School Children and Communities with Poor Air Quality Could Suffer From Increased Local Pollution in Push to Increase “Renewable Energy”

Download the report here.

Pittsburgh, PA – School children in Pennsylvania, along with residents of communities already suffering from poor air quality, could be subjected to increased air pollution and health risks as a result of Pennsylvania programs intended to promote renewable energy, according to a major new report released today by the Pelham, Massachusetts-based Partnership for Policy Integrity.

“Biomass Energy in Pennsylvania,” which received $34,000 in funding from The Heinz Endowments, is a first-of-its kind analysis that details state policies on biomass energy, current and proposed facilities in the state, and the implications of increased bioenergy for air quality, greenhouse gas emissions and forest management. The report found that more than $70 million in state and federal grants and loans for renewable energy have been distributed to support biomass energy and wood pellet production in Pennsylvania. The funding has largely gone to commercial and institutional biomass burners and wood pellet manufacturing plants that employ minimal emissions controls.

“Despite the popular image of wood-burning biomass as ‘clean’ and ‘green,’ these burners emit far more pollution, including particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and ozone-forming nitrogen oxides, than oil and gas burners,” said Dr. Mary Booth, Director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, who conducted the research and wrote the report for the Endowments.

“While the state spends millions of dollars in public funds to promote installing wood burners in public schools and other institutions, as well as private businesses, the state doesn’t require the most effective emissions controls available to reduce these pollutants – nor do they require air quality monitoring, even when burners are installed in areas that already violate EPA air quality standards.” Because of their small size, most of these biomass burners are largely unregulated by the EPA, including those installed in a number of school districts in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania’s programs sharply contradict the position of the American Lung Association, which, as outlined in a June 11, 2011, Energy Policy Position paper, “strongly opposes the combustion of wood at schools and institutions with vulnerable populations” noting that pollution from biomass combustion poses “a significant threat to human health.”  Pennsylvania’s lifetime asthma rate for school students increased 71 percent in recent years, from 6.6 percent in 1997-98 to 11.3 percent in 2008-09, according to Pennsylvania Department of Health’s 2012 Asthma Burden Report.

The report also found that a number of new biomass burners and pellet production plants are located in areas where pollution levels already exceed EPA air quality standards set to protect health, and that some facilities burn contaminated materials. Examples include:

  • Evergreen Community Power, a 33 MW biomass power plant in Reading, received a $39 million federal grant along with $250,000 in state money. Berks County, where the plant is located, exceeds EPA health standards for ozone and airborne lead, and has some of the highest asthma levels in the state.  The Evergreen facility burns off construction and demolition waste, containing glues, resins and other treated wood, as well as plastic and other foreign debris.  When burned, these contaminated materials can emit toxic substances such as arsenic and lead, as well as dioxins – widely considered to be among the most toxic chemicals known.
  • Tri-State Biofuels in Fayette County received $1,076,500 in grants and loans from the state to convert Pennsylvania hardwoods to pellet fuel. The facility burns biomass for energy on site, but Fayette County, where it is located, is in non-attainment with the EPA ozone health standard and is in the top third of counties for asthma incidence.
  • The Piney Creek industrial biomass and waste coal facility in Clarion County has received over$400,000 in state and federal funding. The plant burns railroad ties and utility poles, which contain creosote and the toxic wood preservative pentachlorophenol.

The report points out that while residential wood burning is increasingly recognized as a threat to air quality and respiratory health, policymakers have been slow to recognize the similar threat posed by emissions from biomass burners across Pennsylvania. “Our analysis showed that cumulative emissions from commercial, industrial and institutional biomass burners rival or exceed emissions from residential wood burning in many counties,” Dr. Booth added. “No one would use an old uncontrolled wood stove to heat a school anymore, but the biomass burners being installed in some Pennsylvania schools are permitted to have the equivalent emissions of 12-15 wood stoves coming out of their stack.”

The report outlined steps necessary for Pennsylvania to adopt a “no regrets” policy on biomass energy, including:

  • Requiring state-of-the-art emissions controls for institutional biomass burners, especially those in schools.
  • Air quality monitoring in the vicinity of biomass burners built or planned at schools and other institutions.
  • A moratorium on siting biomass burners in environmental justice areas and areas where air pollution already exceeds health standards.
  • Stricter policies to ensure that materials that materials such as construction and demolition debris, which emit elevated levels of heavy metals and other hazardous air pollutants, are kept out of the biomass fuel stream.

The full report can be viewed at and

The Partnership for Policy Integrity uses science, policy analysis and strategic communications to promote sound energy policy.

The Heinz Endowments supports efforts to make southwestern Pennsylvania a premier place to live and work, a center for learning and educational excellence, and a region that embraces diversity and inclusion.

Partnership for Policy Integrity