DEP’s Sole says “lift the hood” on biomass projects

The governor says they could provide renewable energy for Florida, but Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole says biomass electric plants also are being viewed by DEP the same as any other environmental permit applications.

Some Tallahassee residents who fought a proposed biomass gas electric plant in Tallahassee earlier this year now are asking DEP to take a closer look at such projects around the state.

In advance of meetings last week to discuss biomass plants, Sole said DEP’s regulatory responsibility is to ensure that the projects comply with federal and state air pollution laws.

“They are treated just like any other permit application that comes in the door. Some are new technologies that require additional (information),” Sole said. “Because they are new technologies, we have to lift the hood and make sure we fully understand the process.”

DEP says it has two pending applications for permits while companies proposing four others have held preliminary discussions with DEP. Two other possible projects also have been discussed publicly. (Download a list by clicking here).

The agency last year proposed issuing a permit to Biomass Gas & Electric of Norcross, Ga. for a proposed plant in Tallahassee. But the company withdrew the permit application after facing opposition from some neighboring residents about pollution and noise.

BG&E; now proposes building the plant in Port St. Joe where it has been welcomed by some city and county officials. DEP held an informational meeting in Port St. Joe last week to discuss the project.

Members of the group Floridians Against Incinerators in Disguise met with Sole on Friday in Tallahassee to discuss their concerns about such projects. Gov. Charlie Crist has praised BG&E;’s technology as providing needed renewable energy for Florida’s future.

Dr. Ronald Saff, an allergy and asthmas specialist in Tallahassee, said Monday that Sole seemed in favor of biomass plants during his meeting with opponents. Saff is a member of Floridians Against Incinerators in Disguise and the Florida Medical Association.

“We told Mr. Sole, ‘If you look on the web site of the mission statement of DEP, it is to improve or protect our air quality,’ ” Saff said. “What he is doing by allowing these biomass plants to proliferate is worsening air quality.”

DEP provided a comparison chart showing the pollutants from biomass electricity plants were generally more than natural gas plants and generally less than coal plants.

Interviewed earlier in the week, Sole said the permit proposed last year for the plant in Tallahassee was protective of public health. DEP has requested additional information from BG&E; about its proposed plant in Port St. Joe.

And Sole said it’s important for the public to be able to talk about the details of such proposed projects.

“In whole, when we look at Florida’s energy needs and future diversity, the concept of biomass is something I think Florida should continue to look to and invest in,” he said. “But as a regulator it gets no special treatment.”

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)