AWR Blog

by Chelsi Moy of the Missoulian

The University of Montana volunteered Thursday to pay for additional pollution-control testing to ensure emissions from its proposed biomass boiler meet air quality standards.

The move came as the Missoula City-County Air Pollution Control Board deliberated over UM’s permit for the boiler.

In the end, the board postponed its vote on whether to grant, deny, revoke or modify the air quality permit.

The delay came after board member Renee Mitchell first made a motion to deny UM’s permit. Mitchell’s was the only vote in favor of her motion.

“This is a needless increase of emissions over present levels,” said Mitchell, who spoke in opposition of the project. “I’m frustrated we’re not allowed to consider variables outside the scope of the (air quality) regulations.”

A coalition of environmental groups, including the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan and the Montana Ecosystem Defense Council appealed UM’s air quality permit to the Air Pollution Control Board. They argue that UM’s switch from natural gas to biomass to heat its campus will dirty Missoula’s airshed.

The $16 million proposed biomass gasification plant would be the cleanest biomass boiler in the state of Montana and would, in theory, meet newer, more stringent federal air quality regulations that went into effect just prior to UM submitting its air quality permit application.

Still, UM’s biomass boiler would also emit twice as much nitrogen dioxide and three times as much particulate matter than UM’s existing natural gas boilers.

Most of the concerns on Thursday revolved around the frequency with which UM would be required to test the pollution from its heating plant. Federal regulations require stack tests on new sources of emissions 180 days after startup and every five years after that. Stack tests determine whether industrial-size boilers are meeting air quality standards. Each stack test costs roughly $10,000 to $15,000, said Ben Schmidt, an environmental specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department.

To ease the concerns of health board members, UM agreed to pay for two additional stack tests in the first year of operation in order to begin to collect baseline data. That way, operators and health department officials will have a better idea whether the boilers are operating appropriately and within the parameters of the permit.

After the first year, UM agreed to test its emissions every three years instead of every five years.

Hugh Jesse, director of the university’s facility services, said additional testing seemed like a reasonable solution after sensing concern among some of the air board members.

Also, UM eased concerns about the relationship between various types of biomass and emissions. UM has not yet secured a contract for fuel. Technically, chicken manure and corn are also types of biomass, but UM promised to only use woody biomass in its boiler. Jesse assured the board that the university wasn’t considering using any other type of biomass outside of wood and promised not to use construction waste.

In fact, Jesse even offered to use the savings the university expects from their proposed biomass boiler to buy out old wood stoves in the valley, which Jesse is confident pollute more than the boiler the university is proposing.

Should the university substantially change its fuel source, the Missoula City-County Health Department has the authority to require UM to test its emission levels. Once these boilers have been running for a long period of time on the same fuel, however, the emission levels shouldn’t vary much, said Jim Carlson, director of environmental health at the Missoula City-County Health Department.

“Once a machine is up and running, they typically settle down,” he said.

Several members of the public used the opportunity to voice their opposition of the project and some resented a university official’s recent comment that equated the appellants to low-level eco-terrorists.

“I have belonged to the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club, but I’m not an eco-terrorist,” said Harold Hoen, a Missoula resident who attended some of the university’s earlier public forums. “I wasn’t happy with the way those were conducted. And that was the (Environmental Assessment) process.”

Ross Miller, who chaired Thursday’s meeting, thanked the public for questions and participation.

“As a member of the board, public involvement is greatly appreciated by the board,” he said. “It says to me how much this community cares about its air quality.”

The board now has 30 days to vote on the university’s air quality permit. A date has yet to be determined.

Originally published here.

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