AWR Blog

by Chelsi Moy of the Missoulian

Three groups will present their arguments against an air quality permit issued by the Missoula City-County Health Department for the University of Montana’s proposed biomass boiler during a public meeting on Wednesday.

But not all of those entities are opposed to the wood-burning boiler.

The Health Department granted a permit last month to the university to build a $16 million woody biomass gasification boiler next to its existing heating plant on campus.

Three groups appealed the air quality permit by the July 7 deadline, including UM, the permit recipient.

Those objections will be weighed during a public hearing on Wednesday at 1 p.m. at the Health Department. Health Department director Ellen Leahy will conduct the administrative review. She has the option to affirm, revoke or modify the permit.

A coalition of conservation groups – Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan and Montana Ecosystem Defense Council – oppose the project outright, saying the biomass boiler will contribute to global warming.

“We think it’s a bad project,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance of the Wild Rockies. “We want to contest it every step of the way.”

Missoula citizen Maureen Flemming also opposed the project and requested an administrative review of the permit.

UM requested county health officials consider modifying a section of permit to make the opacity standards less stringent, allowing more dense smokestack emissions.

Anyone who commented on the air quality permit during the public comment period in June, and who is affected by the project, was allowed to appeal the health department’s decision.

Alliance for the Wild Rockies has 200 members living in Missoula, Garrity said. The coalition took exception to the Health Department’s alleged lack of attention to the cumulative effects the boiler will have on air pollution in the Missoula Valley. Missoula County in recent years has come close to exceeding federal air quality standards for particulate matter 2.5.

“We were surprised they approved (the permit) … I was always so impressed with how well the Health Department fought to protect Missoula’s air,” Garrity said. “We think it will make Missoula’s air dirtier and it will contribute to global warming, not fight it.”

The coalition wants the Health Department to revoke the permit so further investigation can be conducted – and so the university can look into other alternatives for reducing its carbon footprint.

UM predicts the project will reduce its carbon footprint by 22 percent.

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Currently, UM relies primarily on natural gas to heat its buildings. The university is proposing to replace 70 percent of its natural gas consumption with woody biomass, meaning beetle-killed trees and hog fuel. The project arose out of the university’s commitment to reduce its carbon footprint by switching from a fossil fuel to a renewable resource.

While UM has proposed one of the cleanest biomass projects in the state, the boiler would emit more pollution than the school’s existing natural gas boilers.

Yet, the project meets all local and federal air quality standards. UM is not currently regulated by an air quality permit because the natural gas boilers were installed prior to the adoption of the Montana Clean Air Act and were grandfathered under state statute.

UM requested an administrative review to address the permit’s opacity standards, which pertain to the clarity of smoke coming out of the stack. Emissions that are clear contain less particulate matter than thick, white plumes of smoke.

The Health Department required UM to meet an average opacity standard of 10 percent every six minutes. UM requests the health department change the conditions, requiring them to meet that standard every hour, instead of every six minutes.

UM made the request because that is the standard for most biomass boilers around the country with the same pollution control equipment, said Tom Javins, UM biomass project manager.

Leahy will allow public comment at the end of Wednesday’s meeting. There will be a written decision before the end of August, she said. Those who requested the administrative review can appeal Leahy’s decision to the full Missoula City-County Air Pollution Control Board.

Originally published here.

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