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Council says state standards at issue in biomass plant permit

Greenfield, MA. January 22, 2009. The Connecticut River Watershed Council (CRWC) is proceeding with its appeal of a water withdrawal permit issued by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in July 2008 for Russell Biomass, Inc., to build a wood-chip fired energy plant on the Westfield River in Russell. A hearing on the appeal will take place in Springfield as early as next week. In its appeal, CRWC, joined by a group of local citizens, is contesting the permit partly on the grounds that DEP didn’t conduct a “safe yield analysis” for the Westfield, a required element that helps regulators know how much water to allocate in a watershed.

The Watershed Council contends that DEP granted the permit without assessing the effects of water withdrawals on the Westfield. “The public has a belief that the Commonwealth is protecting these water resources for coming generations,” says CRWC’s MA River Steward Andrea Donlon, “Our appeal here is about more than just how one plant will operate. We want citizens to be able to trust that DEP is following state guidelines. They should have confidence that the public trust is being preserved.”

The conditions at issue could arise anywhere in the state, Donlon says. And, with at least five new power plants proposed for the Pioneer Valley, she believes the handling of new permits should not occur in piecemeal fashion, but with thought to long term water use policy. CRWC’s concerns at Russell involve drought and low flows, “Under typical river conditions the amount withdrawn by Russell Biomass will not be a large percentage of the river’s flow,” says Donlon, “The big concern is that during summer and drought conditions the permit allows plant operators to keep withdrawing Westfield River water until they reach the lowest river flow ever recorded.”

Donlon says CRWC favors the efficient use of energy, but believes that such deep drawdowns on the Westfield — a federal wild and scenic river — will not adequately protect habitats and water quality. “CRWC has been protecting rivers for over 50 years and we have a long record of working with industries towards common goals of environmental stewardship.” Donlon says rivers are one of the planet’s cooling engines; “Asking them to bear too big a burden as one of the earth’s heat sinks just shifts the problem. Industry, the DEP, and the Watershed Council can all be part of the solution.”

As to other specifics in the Westfield River case, Donlon says that only 15% of the water proposed to be used by Russell Biomass will be returned to the river. She notes that other water withdrawals already occur upstream and downstream of the proposed biomass plant, “But DEP did not assess the cumulative impact of basin-wide withdrawals or site-specific impacts of conditions allowed in the permit,” says Donlon, “The permit issued to Russell Biomass has not struck the right balance. We believe a better, more balanced permit would benefit everyone.”

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For press information contact: Andrea Donlon, River Steward: (413) 772-2020, ext. 205, or adonlon@ctriver.org; Chelsea Gwyther, CRWC Executive Director: (413) 772-2020, ext. 202, or cgwyther@ctriver.org .