May 27, 2015
The Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI) has petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to overturn the air emissions permit for the 60.5 MW wood-burning Piedmont Green Power plant in Barnesville, Georgia. Based on review of pollution emissions data and internal documents requested from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), PFPI concluded that the facility is violating the terms of its operating permit, and is asking EPA to review and rewrite the permit now that it is up for its five-year renewal. The facility, which received $49.5 million from a federal taxpayer-funded clean energy grant in 2012, emits hundreds of tons of air pollution each year.
Jesse Swanhuyser, the attorney who filed the petition on behalf of PFPI, notes, “The Clean Air Act’s Title V program specifically empowers citizens to petition EPA to step in when air pollution permits aren’t sufficiently protective. Piedmont Green Power was sold to the community as being ‘clean and green,’ but our review of emissions data found that it’s actually a big polluter with a permit that’s not in compliance with the Clean Air Act. Our petition asks EPA to ensure the facility abides by the pollution limits and terms it promised the community.”
Biomass power plants are undergoing a surge in development in the United States and abroad, due to the subsidies and incentives for biopower as “renewable” energy. Due to the relatively low efficiency of wood- and other biomass-burning power plants, these facilities actually emit more greenhouse gases and conventional pollutants (such as particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and smog-precursors like nitrogen oxides) than comparably-sized coal and gas plants. PFPI’s scrutiny of the Piedmont Green Power facility was prompted by the organization’s earlier investigation and report on 88 air permits for biomass plants proposed around the country. The investigation found that many facilities claim “minor” source status in the development stage, projecting unrealistically low pollution emissions to avoid triggering the more protective pollution control requirements required for major sources under the Clean Air Act. Once built, these “synthetic minor” facilities can emit more pollution than allowed by their permits, but these violations may not be pursued due to lax monitoring requirements and a lack of resources at the state level.
PFPI’s review of permitting documents from the Piedmont facility found the plant has a history of high emissions and failed stack tests, suggesting it should be required to undergo the more rigorous and protective permitting required for “major” sources under the Clean Air Act. Piedmont’s air permit also does not require emissions testing for hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), which include lead, arsenic, chromium, dioxins, and other toxic pollutants commonly emitted by wood-burning power plants, like the carcinogens benzene and formaldehyde. Nor does the permit require testing fuels before they are burned for heavy metals or other contaminants, even though the facility is permitted to burn a wide variety of waste fuels, including agricultural wastes and disaster and demolition debris. Documents obtained by PFPI found that state air permit engineers commented that it would be difficult for the facility to assure low contamination levels in fuel obtained from from multiple suppliers, and that while limiting fuel contamination sounded good on paper, maybe a better policy between the plant and its fuel suppliers would be “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“Piedmont Green Power received almost $50 million in ‘clean energy’ taxpayer handouts and, like the rest of the bioenergy industry, has been relentlessly promoted as clean and good for the community,” said Mary Booth, PFPI’s director. “The data tell a different story, one of high emissions, dirty fuels, and an inability to bring the plant into compliance. While it’s too late to avoid the inevitable damage to health and the environment that building a large wood-burning plant entails, we are asking that EPA review the Piedmont permit to at least ensure the facility is operating legally under the Clean Air Act.”
PFPI’s petition to the EPA can be downloaded here.