Seattle Steam Plant Assailed as Producer of 'Dirty Heat' Despite Green Credentials

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A downtown energy plant has become a target for activists who claim the facility is producing "dirty heat" that is poisoning the environment and literally threatening our lives. "It's connected with cancer, strokes, heart attacks," said Duff Badgley, one of several dozen activists who staged a protest yesterday. Yet the facility in question--Seattle Steam's new biomass plant--is producing a type of energy often hailed by environmentalists.

Biomass heat is obtained by burning recycled wood rather than fossil fuels like coal and gas. Burning wood emits carbon just like fossil fuels, University of Washington bio-resource scientist Rick Gustafson tells Seattle Weekly. But since wood comes from trees that absorb carbon from the environment, biomass energy is considered "carbon neutral," Gustafson says.

After Seattle Steam opened its biomass plant near Pike Place Market in 2010, converting part of its operation over from natural gas, the company received glowing coverage from Sustainable Industries Magazine, NPR and other media outlets. Seattle Steam chief executive Stan Gent tells SW that its biomass plant, which supplies heat to some 200 buildings downtown, has reduced the company's carbon emissions by 60 percent.

Activists, however, claim that biomass plants emit more carbon, not less. They also say such facilities pollute the air with small matter known as "particulates." Badgley, part of a group called No Biomass Burn, which has also protested planned facilities in Port Townsend and Shelton, says it's these particulates that can cause grave health hazards like heart attacks and strokes. He cites a 2008 report from the American Lung Association that warns that even short-term exposure to particle pollution "can kill."

But that report was not talking about biomass plant pollution specifically, but all types of particle emission, including the pollution caused by automobiles and even home fireplaces. Clark Williams-Derry, director of programs for the environmental non-profit Sightline Institute, says he believes cars and trucks--not biomass plants-- "are the big deals when it comes to particulates." He points to a chart created by Seattle Steam that shows just that.

Gent adds that his company's facility, being new, has a state-of-the-art "scrubber"that cleans up the emissions so that the plant generates even less particulates than allowed by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

Still, Sightline's Williams-Derry says there's a question in his mind about the agency's capabilities. "Are they finding the really, really fine particulates," he wonders. If there's a problem however, holds the UW's Gustafson, the solution lies in correct regulation, not throwing out biomass energy altogether.

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