In a major victory for Springfield residents and for environmental justice, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) has revoked the permit for the long-contested Palmer Renewable Energy 42-megawatt biomass power plant in Springfield, Massachusetts.
While MassDEP based its April 2nd decision on a technicality – the permit is nearly a decade old and the developers have still not begun construction on the plant – the real reason behind this move is far more significant:
“MassDEP has determined to exercise this authority due to the amount of time that has elapsed since issuance of the PRE Final Plan Approval, more recent health-related information, and the heightened focus on environmental and health impacts on environmental justice populations from sources of pollution during the intervening years.”
It took a long time for state officials to hear what the project’s opponents have been saying all along, but it’s clear they finally got the message: Stop treating Springfield as an environmental sacrifice zone.
What has changed in the past year?
For twelve years, local residents and environmental justice advocates have been fighting this wood burning power plant proposed in a community that is already overburdened with pollution and has the highest rate of asthma-related emergency room visits in the country. Nearly one in five children in Springfield suffer from asthma, and 90 percent of city residents are categorized as living within an environmental justice population.
Over the past year, public concern about the proposed biomass plant in Springfield has grown in the wake of increased awareness of racial injustice and the disproportionate pollution burdens and public health impacts suffered in low income communities and communities of color -- longstanding environmental justice issues that have been exposed in sharp relief during the Covid-19 pandemic. A Boston Globe article last fall drew statewide attention to how this proposal would harm Springfield residents.
Even as opposition to the Palmer biomass plant was cresting across the state, the developer, Vic Gatto, moved forward with securing municipal contracts for its power, falsely touting the environmental benefits of his plant. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) proposed to roll back the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) to allow Palmer biomass to profit from selling renewable energy credits in MA.
It’s a toss-up over who has been more tone-deaf – Gatto, who claimed that since air quality has improved in Springfield, the community should not be concerned about pollution from the plant or the DOER whose plans to deliver millions of dollars in clean energy incentives to this polluting biomass plant are utterly misaligned with the state’s own environmental justice policies.
There can be no true climate leadership without climate justice. The state’s decision came exactly a week after Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed sweeping new climate legislation that included provisions intended to strengthen protections for environmental justice communities. If the Baker administration follows through and similarly pulls back its plans to expand incentives for biomass power, the Commonwealth can once again assume the mantle of climate leadership in this country.