et tu, Hawaii? Biomass Developers Low-Ball Numbers to Avoid Pollution Controls

March 22, 2011        
Biomass Power Plant Developers Low-Ball Numbers
to Avoid Pollution Controls
Hu Honua biomass plant will be major polluter
Pepe’ekeo, Hawaii – An e-mail from consultants working on the proposed Hu Honua biomass power plant near Pepe’ekeo on Hawaii Island strongly suggests that developers lowballed pollution numbers in their state air permit application in order to avoid necessary air pollution controls. An independent analysis of the air permit by the non-profit research and science organization, Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI), found that across the board, pollution estimates for the plant are reverse-engineered to fall close to but just below thresholds that would trigger more effective pollution controls.   
Click here to see the PFPI comment letter on the air permit.
If allowed to proceed, the plant will have no controls for highly hazardous mercury and dioxins, and weak limits on particulates, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide, pollutants implicated in a variety of respiratory and other serious health effects.
Pollution numbers for the plant are not based on actual data, but are projections provided by the developer that are easily manipulated. According to an email from a consultant on the project, the emission rate for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a group of regulated air pollutants, was “selected specifically to stay under the Best Available Control Technology trigger.” Best Available Control Technology (BACT) describes a more stringent level of air pollution controls that are required by the Clean Air Act when facilities exceed certain pollution thresholds.
Not only does it appear that plant owners filed pollution estimates with the intent of avoiding “triggers” that would require pollution controls to be installed, but the permit also does not comply with EPA standard practices for calculating emissions.
The plant, an old coal burner which is being converted to burn wood, will be a major source of hazardous air pollutants, emitting 20 to 30 tons per year of toxic chemicals like formaldehyde, benzene, and hydrochloric acid, dangerous metals like arsenic and mercury, and harmful combustion byproducts including dioxin.  Despite the image of wood as a “clean” fuel, the Hu Honua plant will emit more particulate pollution than many coal plants. The plant will also emit between 200 and 300 tons of carbon monoxide per year, which is treated by EPA as a proxy for organic pollutants like formaldehyde. The permit states the plant will emit over 6 tons of formaldehyde and 5.74 tons of benzene per year.  
PFPI has analyzed numerous air permits for biomass electricity generation facilities in the United States. “Just like other biomass plants we have analyzed around the country, Hu Honua will be a major polluter for a facility of its size,” said Mary Booth, Ph.D, senior scientist with PFPI. “The portrayal of biomass as ‘clean’ energy simply isn’t justified” Booth added.
Hu Honua would contribute to air pollution in the region on a daily basis. The Hilo region is already threatened by volcanic emissions, which include sulfur dioxide, for which the air permit contains no limit.There are homes within 300 feet of the proposed power plant, and the town of Pepe’ekeo is just one mile away, downwind of the plant.
Bridget Rapoza, a member of the group Preserve Pepe’ekeo Health and Environment which has opposed the Hu Honua plant, stated, “It is disappointing and surprising that the Department of Health and Hawaii County would consider allowing speculative energy to investors re-open an old coal plant to burn wood and call it ‘renewable’ and ‘green’, despite the fact that this boiler’s emissions will be worse than coal. This plant will have an energy production efficiency of only 20%, but 100% of the fuel burned will produce pollution. Can’t we come up with a better plan for “green” energy in Hawaii?”
Mary Booth of PFPI said, “Biomass burners are big polluters that consume enormous amounts of wood. Citizens should not have to tolerate the pollution of their communities under the pretense of green, renewable energy.”