AWR Blog

by Michael Garrity, Guest column, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies

Bob Duringer, the University of Montana’s vice president of Administration and Finance, was quoted in a Nov. 17 Missoulian article accusing those who question UM’s plan to build a wood-burning heating plant on campus of “a lower level of eco-terrorism.” As a fifth-generation Montanan and a UM alumnus, I find Duringer’s defamatory accusations both dismaying and completely inaccurate.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies joins Missoula residents and other organizations in asking fair and honest questions about the feasibility of UM’s proposal. Initial costs are estimated at $16 million, plus $10 million more during the next 20 years for additional maintenance and operation costs over the existing natural gas system. In return, we get a wood-fired plant that increases emission levels of toxins and particulate matter in Missoula’s fragile airshed during winter months when inversions and air quality alerts are common.

As the Missoulian reported when the Air Pollution Control Board decided to delay approval for the project: “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.”

Dr. William Blackley wrote the Air Pollution Control Board warning that those most affected by the increased air pollution would be individuals with reduced respiratory function such as the elderly and those with chronic diseases as well fetuses, children and athletes who inhale and exhale more than most people.

Likewise, Dr. Ronald Saff, an asthma specialist, warned: “The pollutants emitted from the smokestack will cause asthma attacks, cancer, heart attacks, strokes, increase hospitalization and shorten lives.” He concludes with this advice: “The Penn State University tragedy has taught us that those at the top of the academic pyramid can lose their jobs when the health and welfare of innocents is overlooked. I hope you understand that there is a moral here. I am confident you don’t want to make a decision to approve a biomass plant that will jeopardize not only the health of the students, but other faculty members and community members as well.”

These are real risks to real people and deserve to be assessed and communicated to the public using accurate, open, scientifically based information. Yet, in an email discovered by searching the project’s public record, Duringer advised the opposite to the university employees writing the project’s environmental assessment: “We all need to remember that what we are constructing is a public relations story, not a scientific analysis,” he wrote. “We need to be straight with the facts but tilt the story towards our perspective. Small words, short sentences, no jargon is what the general public will find appealing.”

The Montana Constitution guarantees every Montanan an “inalienable right” to “a clean and healthful environment.” The Montana Environmental Policy Act provides the public process to assure residents that a deliberate effort is made to identify and communicate those impacts before a project is approved. Duringer’s advice to turn this environmental review process into a “public relations story” hardly meets the legal requirement to fully inform the public of the potential impacts. And that says nothing of the university’s commitment to produce great citizens who can fully participate in our democracy.

The University of Montana I went to encouraged students to think for themselves and to respect and participate in open and honest public debate. There is a huge body of scientific literature proving the increased health risk of the emissions, but there are no studies that show reduced health risk. Are the university and Duringer now opposed to science as well as intellectual debate?

The Alliance and numerous Missoula residents have participated fully and legally in the public debate over the university’s proposal. Obviously, Duringer needs to brush up on Montana law before he defames people who are exactly following prescribed legal processes every step of the way. Alternatively, perhaps he should resign or be fired and replaced with someone who respects their fellow Montanans and our shared rights under our Constitution and law.

Originally published here.

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