Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Thurston County Commissioners Adopt Biomass Facility Moratorium

Thurston County Commissioners Adopt Biomass Facility Moratorium

By Janine Gates

The board of Thurston County Commissioners today approved an ordinance adopting a 12 month moratorium on new biomass facilities. The ordinance, which takes effect immediately, states that "adopting the moratorium is necessary for the preservation of the public health, safety and general welfare of Thurston County residents."

The moratorium language was created out of research conducted by county staff, along with information and public testimony recently received by the commissioners, largely regarding the biomass gasification facility proposed by The Evergreen State College (TESC) in Olympia.

Interim regulations were also adopted to define biomass facilities, biomass conversion and biomass gasification.

The board meeting was announced as a special meeting of the commissioners. Commissioners Cathy Wolfe and Sandra Romero were present - Commissioner Karen Valenzuela was unable to attend.

During the meeting, which lasted about ten minutes, Romero said that the moratorium is to give the county "breathing room" to study the biomass issue because it is not currently addressed in county code. The commissioners also found that the biomass issue is not adequately addressed in Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater urban growth area zoning codes.

"We don't have enough information - it's all anecdotal at this point. We don't want to be like other counties and get caught in a reactionary mode. There might not be enough wood, for example, to sustain this facility," said Romero in an interview this afternoon.

"We want to be ahead of the curve and not behind it....this could be terribly unhealthy for us. It's about clean air in many ways. It's not a narrow issue and it doesn't have to do just with Evergreen - it's the issue of biomass that we need to get a handle on. We have very little wiggle room before we're not in compliance with the Clean Air Act," said Romero.

Commissioner Cathy Wolfe also expressed concern about TESC's proposed fuel supply and issues related to health. The Commissioners also serve as the county's board of health.

"We need time to study the issue before we move forward with permitting...I want to learn a lot more - we're not taking a position at this time on the issue, but it's prudent to slow down. I'm so glad everyone's paying attention to this issue," said Wolfe in an interview this afternoon.

The use of biomass to create heat and electricity is an issue of national debate.

“This is not just a planning issue…we need to work with the health department and other jurisdictions to study the issue," said Jeremy Davis, Thurston County associate planner, who compiled background information and resources for the consideration of the commissioners.

“We’re planning to do a website in the next week about the moratorium so we can provide people information. This will be available at www.thurstonplanning.org. We are also required to have a public hearing within 60 days about the moratorium. The board has not officially set the date for the public hearing, but will at its next meeting," said Davis.

A tentative date for the public hearing has been set for February 7, at 5:30 p.m. in Room 152 at the Thurston County Courthouse, 2000 Lakeridge Dr. SW. The meeting date will be determined at the board's next meeting, January 4th, 2011.

The notice for the public hearing will also solicit comments for adding the item to the Commissioners 2010-11 Comprehensive Plan Amendment docket. The commissioners will study environmental and siting issues, propose amendments to the Thurston County comprehensive plan, if necessary, and propose amendments to the Thurston County code.

There are two circumstances in which the county moratorium can not prohibit siting such facilities: essential public facilities as defined by the Growth Management Act, and facilities that fall under the jurisdiction of the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) energy facility certification process. Under Washington state law, the council could preempt local zoning regulations following its public hearing process.

Davis did not see that Evergreen's proposed facility is included in these circumstances at this time.

"If it's determined it is an 'essential public facility', then it would come in under those GMA provisions," said Davis. It is in TESC's hands as to what to propose to add to the state's capital facilities project list. Davis said it is unlikely that the TESC facility would fall under EFSEC's certification process since those facilities are usually very large.

"If they come in as an essential public facility, then there is a very long, public, special use permit process," said Davis. Since TESC has not yet submitted any application, it's hard to say what kind of facility it would be typed as, and what kind of permit process would follow, says Davis.

Four other, larger biomass facilities have been proposed, permitted or built in nearby counties. The facilities include the Adage and Simpson incinerators in Shelton, Mason County, the Port Townsend Paper incinerator in Jefferson County, and the Nippon incinerator in Port Angeles, Clallam County.

The Evergreen State College was asked to comment on today's moratorium. Jason Wettstein, TESC communications director, responded on behalf of several senior staff and administration members involved with the biomass facility project.

"We haven't had time to consider what this means for our project. Scott (Morgan, TESC's sustainability coordinator) found out about the meeting and went this morning prepared to provide the commissioner's with information, but he was not asked for it. It was really a bit of a surprise," said Wettstein.

Jeff Morris, economist and principal of Sound Resource Management with 25 years of professional experience in biomass issues, attended the Commissioner's meeting today.

"It was pretty amazing what they did - I think it's great. The process needed to slow down because TESC has never seriously considered alternatives based on any scientific life cycle research.

"TESC also hasn't addressed revealing what the emissions are (of the proposed facility) much less what the impacts of those emissions will be. I'm hoping this time-out will lead to the consideration of real scientific information that's available on ways to reduce our carbon and pollution footprints," said Morris.

In related news, The Evergreen State College did not receive the $10 million it requested for its proposed biomass gasification facility in Governor Chris Gregoire's transportation, capital, and economic development budget released last week. TESC did receive $10.8 million for other projects such as the renovation of the communications and science lab buildings.

Other funding TESC wanted, but did not receive, was for lecture hall renovation planning, acquisition of land to support TESC's Tacoma campus facility, and modernization of the original farm building at TESC's organic farm.

"We got less than we wanted...and we'll have to give our facilities extra TLC (tender loving care) at a basic maintenance level," said Steve Trotter, TESC budget director and Sustainability Council co-chair.

During the upcoming legislative session, Evergreen will continue to advance its funding priorities for its capital budget projects, which includes the proposed biomass gasification facility, said Trotter last week.

For more information:

About TESC's proposed biomass facility, see articles by Janine Gates at www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com.

Thurston County Commissioners: www.co.thurston.wa.us/bocc

Thurston County Planning Department: www.co.thurston.wa.us/planning or www.thurstonplanning.com.

Office of Financial Management (OFM)- OFM maintains the state list of essential public facilities: http://www.ofm.wa.gov/reports/default.asp and

MRSC information on essential public facilities: http://www.mrsc.org/askmrsc/pastinqsubject.aspx?sid=26#Essential Public Facilities

State of Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council website: http://www.efsec.wa.gov/default.shtm