Greenfield, MA. February 23, 2010.
The Connecticut River Watershed Council (CRWC) received word in late January that MA Department of Environmental Protection’s Commissioner Laurie Burt has remanded the water withdrawal permit issued to Russell Biomass, LLC for a proposed biomass facility on the Westfield River. The decision requires DEP’s Western Regional Office in Springfield to review the permit under an interim safe yield policy developed in November 2009.

The remand comes in light of recent policy changes implemented by the Patrick Administration in issuing permits under the Water Management Act. CRWC and its partners had appealed the 2008 permit issued to Russell Biomass on grounds that DEP had not adequately considered safe yield in the permit. The permit was upheld in August, 2009 in a recommended decision by a DEP presiding officer. Parties had since been awaiting a final decision by Commissioner Burt.

“We are heartened that the Commissioner re-affirmed that permitting decisions be based on the best available science. That is what we have been asking for from the beginning,” said Andrea Donlon, CRWC’s Massachusetts River Steward, “However, there are a number of issues with the remand that we find problematic.” CRWC and a ten citizen group filed a request for clarification with DEP on February 22nd, noting that remands are supposed to be directed to a presiding officer, not a regional DEP office, and this decision does not recognize the need for due process hearing procedures. Donlon also noted discrepancies within DEP as to the current allocation of withdrawals in the Westfield basin.

A groundswell of opposition ensued last fall when DEP changed its longstanding position on safe yield, which would have allowed rivers to be drawn down to conditions of severe drought. Scores of groups protested, and several resigned from the state’s Water Management Advisory Committee. In light of this, Governor Patrick reconsidered and DEP clarified its position on safe yield to include environmental protection factors such as water quality, a subject the presiding officer excluded from the appeal testimony last year. DEP’s clarification set in motion a pair of stakeholder groups working to develop a long term safe yield methodology that will be in place within a year, ultimately affecting withdrawals in the Commonwealth’s 11,000 miles of rivers and streams.

“We find it troublesome that the Commissioner has directed DEP to use the interim safe yield in the absence of formal rulemaking, thereby allowing DEP to create a new standard without granting each party a fair opportunity to prepare arguments and submit evidence,” says CRWC’s Donlon, “Healthy rivers and habitats are the backbone of our communities. The Westfield River deserves better protection than a permit allowing a corporation to withdraw down to the lowest flow ever recorded, then dump heated water back in; we hope ultimately DEP will see that.”

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For press information contact: Andrea Donlon (413) 772-2020, ext. 205, or adonlon@ctriver.org, or Fridays at home (413)625-8178.