Monday, February 7, 2011

"Courageous" County Commissioners Hear Biomass Testimony

“Courageous” County Commissioners Hear Biomass Testimony

By Janine Gates

The word “courageous” was repeated over and over in public testimony tonight to describe the Thurston County commissioner’s action in late December to adopt an emergency ordinance for a one year moratorium on new biomass facilities.

Commissioners Karen Valenzuela, Sandra Romero and Cathy Wolfe heard testimony from tens of community members, several of whom came from Mason County, where the proposed Adage biomass facility is in a permitting process.

Over a period of several days last week, the commissioners, who also serve as the county board of health, heard biomass related information provided by state agencies, The Evergreen State College, and a citizen’s group concerned with the environmental, economic and public health consequences of Evergreen’s proposed biomass facility.

Of the 45 people who testified in support of the moratorium, two spoke directly in support of lifting the moratorium. The county staff recommendation is in support of affirming the moratorium ordinance and referring the issue to the Thurston County Planning Commission.

The Evergreen State College, which is currently studying a proposal to build a biomass gasification facility, has not yet submitted an application to the county.

Alicia Le Duc, an Olympia resident studying energy and sustainability in The Evergreen State College’s master in public administration program, said she has spent about 200 hours of research on the biomass issue. Le Duc said her father has worked at TransAlta coal plant in Centralia her whole life. Her sister has worked there too, and both have health issues. She supports Evergreen’s efforts to get off fossil fuels and has looked into the alternatives.

“I have done my homework and I’m willing to provide it,” she said. “The biomass facility is the best option, most economically feasible, and uses natural, local resources.”

Phil Shulte, president of a westside neighborhood association, spoke for himself, stating that fossil fuels are an unsustainable resource.

Above: Patrina Walker signs in to testify tonight at the Thurston County Commissioner's public hearing on their biomass moratorium ordinance.

“We All Share The Air”

Several Mason County residents praised the commissioners for doing what they say Mason County commissioners did not do: represent the people.

Patrina Walker, of Mason County, has owned a business at the Olympia Farmer’s Market for 23 years and described herself as an “appalled alumna,” of Evergreen as did Bonnie Phillips of Olympia, who received her masters from Evergreen and now runs a regional biomass related list serv.

Beth McBain, spokesperson for Concerned Citizens of Mason County, lives in the neighborhood of 100 homes and a K-8 school in Shelton where Adage hopes to build its biomass plant. She urged the commissioners to keep the moratorium in place.

“Sadly it seems that many of our elected officials have drunk the green Kool Aid that has been offered up by Big Energy, the forest products industry, and their highly paid lobbyists….We would hate to think that one of our most respected state institutions located right here in Thurston County would be forced to change its name to the Never Green State College.”

Mary Moore, representing the League of Women Voters, spoke of the League’s support for moratorium.

Susan Macomson, representing the South Sound Sierra Club, also supported the moratorium.

Olympia City Councilmember Steve Langer spoke as a private citizen in support of the moratorium, calling it “good public policy.” Langer, who said he suffers from asthma and heart disease, said he was concerned about the health effects of biomass, questioned whether or not biomass gasification is carbon neutral and wondered how much biomass belongs in the forest for the forest to be healthy.

TESC Testifies

Ken Tabbutt, interim vice-president for academics, spoke about TESC’s Sustainability Council’s process in examining its proposed biomass gasification facility. "If TESC chooses to go ahead with the project, we hope to partner with the county to implement responsible standards,” said Tabbutt.

Ted Whitesell, an Evergreen faculty member for 18 years, serves on the TESC Sustainability Council. He's also the director of TESC's master of environmental studies program, and is conducting an applied research class on biomass this quarter, involving 26 students.

“I would not consider myself an expert on biomass but the research allows me to conclude that the moratorium was a wise and reasonable decision on your part…your decision was a courageous act. What we have not heard tonight is a compelling argument for why you should change your mind. It’s not about TESC or Adage, it’s about the moratorium and biomass gasification. Maintain the moratorium,” said Whitesell.

TESC student Dani Madrone also spoke in support of the moratorium. Madrone, a student advisory member of the TESC Sustainability Council who works with the Office of Sustainability as a paid intern, recently excused herself from further involvement in the biomass project process.

In a recent letter to TESC college president Les Purce, Madrone says that “the current path we tread in search of sustainability is intrinsically wrong….The biomass gasification project has comprised Evergreen’s relationship with the campus and surrounding communities....”

“With the full support of the school, I had promised ideas of collaboration, told people that their concerns would be addressed, and insisted that the school would be transparent. However, the college has violated all of these promises,” the letter says. Madrone, a senior, will soon receive her bachelor of applied science degree in advanced chemistry, renewable energy systems and community development.

The letter, which was sent to the county commissioners late last week, calls for TESC to honor the Thurston County moratorium, revisit the campus Climate Action Plan, return remaining biomass gasification feasibility study monies back to the Clean Energy Committee, and adopt a formal policy on public process.

The letter is signed by four members of the TESC Clean Energy Committee, one member of the TESC Sustainability Council (Ted Whitesell), several Sustainability and Justice program faculty members and other faculty members, students, and community members.

The commissioners closed public comment tonight but will review public comments in a work session on February 9, from 3:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. at the Thurston County Courthouse, Room 280. The work session is open to the public.

Jeremy Davis, county association planner, said prior to the hearing tonight that the commissioners have received a total of 294 comments regarding the moratorium, with one of those comments against the moratorium. The county moratorium on biomass facilities is thought to be the first in the country, and comments have also been received from outside the county, statewide, the United States and outside the United States.

These comments and tonight’s testimony will be posted on the Thurston County Planning Commission website at

TESC Sustainability Council

TESC Sustainability Council members are now meeting weekly to gather information in order to provide a recommendation to TESC vice presidents by early March about the project. The group is under pressure: TESC vice-president John Hurley has promised the Washington State Department of Commerce an answer in March as to whether or not they will continue with the project. If they don’t, TESC must give back a $3.7 million grant dedicated to building the project.

The council was not specifically charged to deal with a biomass feasibility study at all. The group deviated from its own Climate Action Plan to pursue the study now, influenced by state-funneled federal stimulus “clean energy” funds, instead of in a couple years from now.

The group does not have an official process to determine how decisions are made, or whether quorums are needed at meetings to move forward with key decisions. Member attendance is spotty and one long-time sustainability council member, faculty member Rob Cole, is now on academic leave for the quarter. Meeting minutes are taken sporadically. Community meetings are quickly planned and sparsely attended due to the short notice provided. The last community meeting, held at Evergreen in late January, was publicly noticed to some community, elected officials, and neighborhood associations just six days prior.

Another opportunity for the community to meet with McKinstry and Nexterra representatives last week was noticed only to TESC faculty, students and staff. McKinstry and Nexterra are two of the companies Evergreen is working with to finance and build the biomass facility.

A couple group members – those who have an actual vote on the direction of this project – have expressed serious reservations about the study’s quickened pace. Last week, the council struggled to define the project boundaries for carbon emissions and the scope of the college’s responsibility to carbon neutrality.

High Cost to Woo Biomass

In related news, The Evergreen State College spent a total of $1,940 to send two college representatives, Sustainability Council member and director of facilities Paul Smith, and Sustainability Coordinator Scott Morgan, to the recent Pacific West Biomass Conference in Seattle last month.

The keynote speaker for the conference, Washington State Department of Natural Resource’s Commissioner of Public Lands, Peter Goldmark, announced a jet biofuel initiative, that is now pending legislation before the Washington State Legislature.

The registration, hotel, mileage reimbursement cost, which came out of their respective department budgets, provided TESC the opportunity to attend workshops and meet a variety of biomass related vendor representatives.

For more information on TESC and regional biomass issues, see other articles at


  1. Hi Janine,

    I think it is worth mentioning that, in my testimony, I stated that I am a very effected stakeholder in this project. I live close to school, I have a child at the Child Care Center, and I am a student at a college that I love. My concerns with biomass are regarding the sustainability for the bioregion. It is clear that biomass can not replace fossil fuels for the whole community, so what other options are there once we have conserved all that we can?

    I insist that those who are concerned about the health effects also consider the impact that other options for energy have on other communities. All of our energy choices will have some impact, and if we choose to externalize that impact then we are compromising the ability of another community to meet their own needs.


  2. Janine,

    As usual, your reporting is excellent. You present many sides of these issues and I also enjoy the way you bring the people to life with concise, evocative sentences.

    Some corrections:

    There seems to be a typo when you say the following: "Of the 45 people who testified in support of the moratorium, two spoke directly in support of lifting the moratorium." Did you mean there were 45 for and 2 against?

    I have been at Evergreen for 12 years. I told the commissioners that I had been teaching environmental studies at the college level for 18 years because I was teaching at Michigan State University for 6 years before coming here.

    Martha Henderson succeeded me as MES Director in the fall of 2009.

    "It’s not about TESC or Adage, it’s about the moratorium and biomass gasification." What I actually said was that the question before the commissioners was not whether or not TESC should build a biomass facility or even whether or not Adage should. It was only about whether to maintain the moratorium. I argued that no compelling reason to lift the moratorium had been offered that night and that I supported the moratorium because it would facilitate a democratic decision making process.

    But, on the whole, your articles are, by far, the best reporting being done on this issue. Thank so much for your dedication and hard work!


  3. The community's rejection of biomass contains an element of concern for the reputation of TESC. We expect, and have received in the past, much better from them.

    There have always been factions within their host community, Thurston County, who would see Evergreen closed and boarded up. Evergreen's performance on this issue is jeopardizing their academic integrity. The college is one of he community's most valuable assets and it is their (the college's) responsibility to keep their ship afloat.