Article analyzes Jasper’s biomass plant plan

Herald Staff Writer

A couple of University of Notre Dame biology professors have written an analysis of the City of Jasper’s plan to convert its power plant into a biomass plant.

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
The City of Jasper’s idled coal-fired power plant has been the topic of discussion as city officials plan to lease it to Atlanta-based Twisted Oak Corp. to convert it into a facility to burn miscanthus grass and natural gas. A lawsuit filed by a group concerned about the city's pursuit is set to go back to court.

“Lessons on Drought and Pollution from the Forgotten Three Billion: An Indiana Case Study on Using Biomass Crops for Generating Electricity” was published in the inaugural issue of Global Health Perspectives in late March. The title refers to a conclusion cited in the article that 3 billion people in developing countries face severe indoor air pollution from domestic incineration of biomass fuel.

The article was written by B.N. Kunycky and Kristin Shrader-Frechette, who is also a professor in the university’s philosophy department and the director for the university’s Center for Environmental Justice and Children’s Health.

Shrader-Frechette conducts analyses at no cost for communities and organizations that can’t afford to conduct their own. The analysis in the journal article was requested by Healthy Dubois County Inc., a group of local citizens who oppose the conversion of the city’s now-closed coal-fired power plant.

Healthy Dubois County has filed a lawsuit against utility and city officials in an effort to stop the power plant from being converted into a biomass plant. Lawyers for both sides are to appear in court in May to work out the details for the upcoming trial, which has not yet been scheduled.

The two professors point out in the article concerns regarding the biomass incineration industry and biomass crop subsidization. The article uses Atlanta-based Twisted Oak Corp.’s plan to convert the city’s power plant into the Jasper Clean Energy Center, which would burn both natural gas and miscanthus grass, to assert that biomass proposals use special-interest science that is flawed and underestimate risks.

Shrader-Frechette and Kunycky point out that the particulate matter that comes from biomass is ultrafine and more hazardous than particulate matter that comes from coal. Because it has been discovered more recently, no regulations are in place for ultrafine particulate matter, they wrote.

The professors also said that growing miscanthus and other nonfood biomass crops worsens drought conditions and food shortages, thus causing increases in food prices globally. They said that for the seven-month period needed to grow miscanthus, southern Indiana is unlikely to produce enough rainfall for the crop and will “likely need costly irrigation with scarce water.”
Farmers who grow miscanthus will lose money and worsen drought conditions whether they choose to irrigate or not, the professors stated. They also said the miscanthus root mat is deep and penetrating and could reduce groundwater availability, and miscanthus is far less likely to survive a drought than other crops.

They purport that growing corn, which provides food, is better than growing miscanthus in part because of its shorter growing season and lower water requirements.

Shrader-Frechette and Kunycky also state in the article that fertilizers and herbicides used on growing miscanthus threaten local water supplies. Fertilization puts nitrogen/nitrates into the water sources, they said, and has contaminated the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. “Most of the 15,000 people in Jasper and 42,000 in Dubois County could be affected by drinking nitrate/nitrogen-contaminated water from miscanthus growing,” they wrote.

Twisted Oak’s idea to use atrazine, the professors said, would cause more water pollution. They went on to say that herbicide has been banned in 27 nations and is associated with neurological disease and disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism.

Shrader-Frechette and Kunycky state that the Twisted Oak proposal is flawed and uses special-interest science — research whose conclusions are predetermined by profit interests and funded by industries. Twisted Oak’s research on miscanthus was conducted by Mendel, a California-based company whose product portfolio includes miscanthus grass.

The duo found the Twisted Oak proposal lacking in information and not convincing of the merits of a biomass facility. The professors believe that biomass proposals should include cost-benefit, ecological risk and quantitative human health risk assessments; should have redacted only information that is legally required to be, so that the public is aware of the risks; should answer arguments raised by all medical groups, such as the American Lung Association and the Massachusetts Medical Society, which publishes the New England Journal of Medicine; and should answer food security and drought/climate arguments against biomass crop subsidies.

Shader-Frechette has authored two other articles about the city’s plan that she intends to have published. A copy of the published article can be found online here.

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