DEP hearings: Joy Bergey

JoyBergeyJoy Bergey is a former PA IPL board member.  She testified at the PA DEP listening session in Marcus Hook, Philadelphia County on September 30, 2015.  

My name is Joy Bergey, and I speak as director of the Environmental Justice Center of Chestnut Hill United Church. Based in Philadelphia, the Center is a multi-religious program working with congregations to address issues of environmental injustice.

We thank Secretary Quigley and DEP for holding these listening sessions. We you to create a strong plan to meet EPA’s emissions reductions targets under the Clean Power Plan. In fact, we urge DEP to exceed these targets.

In light of DEP’s own startling new report, Pennsylvania’s temperatures are predicted to rise 5 to 6 degrees in mere decades.

Given the deeply inspiring messages delivered by His Holiness Pope Francis just a few miles from here last weekend, we must take strong action to limit carbon pollution. It’s a moral imperative.

We at the Center have recently become aware of a significant source of carbon dioxide that EPA has included as a potential compliance option under the Clean Power Plan: wood-burning power plants. Referred to more broadly as biomass, these power plants are sometimes assumed to be carbon neutral.  They are not. Far from it, in fact.

Disturbingly, a careful assessment of their impact reveals these power plants can be much worse than coal plants in terms of carbon pollution, other air pollutants, and toxic emissions. This seems counterintuitive — how can this be?

I am not an expert on this topic. But I’ll share what I’ve already learned about the pollution profile of biomass plants (and I would be happy to provide you with the reports I’ve read).

Analysis of biomass power plants reveals several reasons for why they are so polluting:

– Wood, even if well seasoned, contains a surprising amount of moisture. When used as fuel in a power plant, much of the heat energy is used to evaporate water, before useful energy can be generated to turn the turbines and generate electricity. This loss in efficiency means burning wood in a power plant emits about 50 percent more carbon per unit energy than burning coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel.

– Carbon emissions from a biomass plant can presumably be offset over time – just plant some more trees somewhere to suck up all that CO2 from the wood that gets burned, right?  Here’s the problem with that assumption: it’s hardly ever verifiable, and it takes too long. Although trees could be planted to absorb the carbon, it would take decades of tree growth to offset the large emissions from burning wood in the first place, something that’s almost impossible to accurately track over such a long period. To compound the problem, we’ve lost the carbon-sink benefit we would have had if the trees we burned in the power plant had been able to stand for decades longer, continuing to absorb CO2, rather than being cut down and burned.

– Biomass plants increasingly burn contaminated fuels. It’s not just wood, or sawdust, or wood pellets being burned. It’s often contaminated materials like construction and demolition debris, creosote-containing railroad ties, plastics, and items containing heavy metals and other toxics. And all this waste material gets a pass under the Clean Air Act.

Unfortunately, biomass plants are undergoing a resurgence in the US. While the biomass energy industry is still limited here, DEP is likely to hear from industry and some advocates that the way to “reduce” emissions at coal plants is to co-fire biomass, or convert the plants completely to burn wood.

It’s critically important that DEP bear in mind as our state plan is developed that burning biomass is NOT in any way a carbon-free power source, or even a low-pollutant source that should be included in our plan to hit EPA’s target for CO2 reductions.

The ways that we generate our power in this country are causing damage to God’s world that could take centuries to heal, threatening to deprive our children and their grandchildren of safe and healthy communities in which to live and grow.

Secretary Quigley, the Environmental Justice Center at Chestnut Hill United Church urges  DEP not to include biomass plants as part of Pennsylvania’s Clean Power Plan scenario.

Thank you.