READING – If you knew every time you turned on a light in your Reading home you were supporting a power plant that was making people sick, how would you feel?

A proposed biomass power plant in East Springfield could soon provide power for Reading Municipal Light customers. Critics say when built, the wood-burning plant will increase air pollution in a city already called the Asthma Capital of America.

The Conservation Law Foundation says the plant, “threatens to further poison a community already overburdened by poor air quality.”

So how can RMLD, which talks of helping the environment by reducing carbon emissions on its website, purchase power from this plant?

Last February, RMLD General Manager Coleen O’Brien signed a 20-year contract to purchase 25 percent of the energy produced by the plant, owned by Palmer Renewable Energy. RMLD would be the largest customer of the plant.

The five-member RMLD Board of Commissioners didn’t learn about the commitment until the fall. The board unanimously voted in October to review the contract but nothing has happened since, including at last week’s board meeting. While officials across the state have spoken up, RMLD has remained silent on the commitment.

Calls to O’Brien were not returned Monday.

In December, the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) proposed regulatory amendments to make the plant’s output more attractive to customers. The amendments would lower the bar to classify the plant as clean energy. Many, including the Reading Select Board, have called for hearings on those amendments.

Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, and Attorney General Maura Healey have expressed opposition to the plant and asked for a public hearing on the DOER amendments. Their comments are contained in last week’s Reading Select Board packet on the town website.

But if opposition to the plant is so universal, again the question, why did RMLD commit to buying 25 percent of the plant’s production? It’s a question many are asking.

Last week, led by Karen Herrick and Vanessa Alvarado, the Reading Select Board discussed RMLD’s decision to buy power from the plant as well as the proposed amendments.

The Select Board approved sending a letter to Governor Baker, state committee chairs, and the Department of Energy Resources, in opposition to the proposed relaxation of the regulations.

“We would not like to see the rules relaxed in such a way that would mean our local power purchases would override the wishes of the Springfield City Council,” said the letter. “Nor would we want to be instrumental in the financing of an inefficient power plant.”

The local discussion included a letter written by David Talbot, a member of the RMLD Board of Commissioners. Talbot expressed his personal opposition to the plant and RMLD’s decision to buy power from it.

“I am troubled by the administrative and contractual steps that could place this facility in a low-income area of East Springfield, against the will of the local people and City Council, so that relatively wealthy towns like the ones RMLD serves – Reading, North Reading, Wilmington, and Lynnfield – can obtain cheap electricity and even get to call it clean.”

Talbot was joined by State Senator Jason Lewis who issued a statement Jan. 19th opposed to the plant as well as RMLD’s role in it.

“Massachusetts has been, and must continue to be, a national and global leader in urgently combating climate change; replacing dirty fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy as quickly as possible; and building a green economy that creates good new jobs and prioritizes environmental justice and sustainability.

“I believe that the agreement entered into last year by Reading Municipal Light Department (RMLD) to purchase a substantial amount of power from the proposed Palmer biomass plant in Springfield is wholly inconsistent with these goals for our state.

“First proposed in 2008, the Palmer plant has been vehemently opposed by the local community and environmental activists. If built, it would be the state's only large-scale biomass plant, and it would burn more than 1,000 tons of wood each day in a city that already has an astronomically high asthma rate and whose population is mostly people of color. It would be a dirty, carbon-emitting plant and an insult to environmental justice.

“I appreciate that RMLD is strongly committed to making the transition to clean, renewable energy (and, notably, in 2019 installed the largest stand-alone battery energy storage unit in Massachusetts). I hope that RMLD will reconsider its decision to purchase power from the Palmer plant.

“I will continue to advocate at the state level against any weakening of current regulations that would make large-scale biomass plants like Palmer more financially viable in Massachusetts.”

If unfamiliar with the RMLD hierarchy, the Board of Commissioners is similar to the Select Board with O’Brien functioning in much the same was as Town Manager Bob LeLacheur. There is also a Citizens Advisory Board (CAB) composed of one person from Reading, North Reading, and Lynnfield, and two from Wilmington, RMLD’s biggest customer. The CAB normally reviews a contract as large as the one with the Springfield plant but has yet to do so.

If the December proposals are accepted as is, the environmental bar would be lowered. The plant would be considered green renewable energy and its customers, like RMLD, would look good because they’re buying clean energy. But opponents call the draft regulations lipstick on a pig and say the plant will add to air pollution and an already significant public health problem.

“Forest biomass energy production, the burning of woody fuel from forests to generate electricity, will only exacerbate the climate and public health crises facing the Commonwealth,” said Healey.

With the letter sent, the Select Board will join with Markey, Warren, Lewis, Healey, and others in awaiting the state’s next move. While that’s going on at the state level, Reading residents can keep an eye on RMLD. Will O’Brien reconsider RMLD’s commitment to the plant as Senator Lewis asks? Can the Board of Commissioners overrule O’Brien? And even if they can, will they?

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