Back-room deals, biomass, pollute Jasper, Indiana

Citizen, physician concerns ignored by public-private conspiracy

In his state of the city address on Feb. 16, 2010, Bill Schmitt, mayor of the southern Indiana city of Jasper, addressed the topic of what to do with the city’s idle coal-fired power plant. One option, he said, according to the Dubois County Herald, would be to convert the plant to a “green-energy-producing facility.”

Little did anyone realize at the time that his comment would turn out to be an early salvo in what has become a bitter, protracted battle between the people of Jasper and their local government.

It didn’t take Jasper citizens long to figure out that they didn’t want a biomass plant in their midst.

According to a recent survey, “81 percent of Americans think that other energy producing options should be explored first before biomass energy production is explored,” according to a June 15 Huffington Post article.

Biomass isn’t “clean, green or renewable” and produces “a multitude of damaging byproducts—greenhouse gases, other air pollutants, water pollution, ash, adverse health impact, and economic damage,” according to the Huffington Post story.

The American Lung Association (ALS), American Cancer Society (ACS) and American Heart Association (AHA) have all gone on record as opposing biomass, according to the Wiregrass Activists for Clean Energy’s website.

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On July 19, 2010, Jasper Mayor Bill Schmitt first mentioned publicly that the Jasper city council and utilities service board (USB) were considering a proposal by Twisted Oak, an Atlanta company, to convert the coal plant to a biomass plant that would produce electricity by burning miscanthus, a crop that the company would pay local farmers to grow, according to the Herald.

Jasper citizens informed themselves rapidly. They obtained help from Crawford County Concerned Citizens and Scott County Concerned Citizens, two grassroots organizations that were fighting biomass proposals in their respective counties. And the citizens began bringing up problems with the biomass proposal in meetings of the council and USB.

On Oct. 11, 2010, at a formal public meeting, 16 members of the public spoke out against the biomass proposal, said the Herald. They cited health and environmental concerns and the effects of a biomass plant on property values and the quality of life.

They mentioned birth defects, cancer and respiratory conditions as some of the issues attending biomass burning.

Several mentioned that the plant would be in close proximity to a residential neighborhood.

One person pointed out fine particles were an issue with biomass and that part of Indiana was already heavily polluted with them by the world’s largest concentration of coal plants.

Another person mentioned that dioxins, the most carcinogenic class of synthetic chemicals known, would form in the burning process and exit from the smokestack.

Someone expressed doubt about the state and federal agencies’ capacities to properly regulate and monitor the air pollution from a biomass plant.

Yet another person suggested dismantling the current coal plant and creating a park or museum devoted to the antiquated, environmentally damaging practice of burning coal for electricity.

The USB chair, according to the meeting minutes, assured the public that the USB would continue to research the issues and hold more public meetings in the future. But he also said the next public hearing would occur after the city decided what specific option it wanted to pursue.

In a telephone interview, pediatrician Dr. Norma Kreilein, who has practiced in Jasper for 23 years and is a leader of the opposition, said from then on, the city’s message was, “We’re going to go ahead anyway with this no matter what anybody says or how much harm it does to anyone.”

Early on, the city made up its mind to go ahead with the project, she said. Local citizens had no voice in the decisions; public officials professed to be listening to the public but consistently pursued a course of action opposite of what the large majority of citizens wanted. “The city has completely aligned itself with the company at the expense of its own citizens,” Dr. Kreilein said.

Citizens’ opposition to the biomass project continued to gain momentum. They pointed out that the plant would use 400,000–600,000 gallons of water each day, 17 percent of Jasper’s daily water supply, and would produce hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic wastewater every day.

In answer to the city’s claim that the plant would bring jobs to Jasper, the citizens pointed out it would bring fewer than 30. “That’s a terrible ratio of pollution to employment,” said Dr. Kreilein.

The citizens also pointed out that the electricity produced by the plant would be sold to a buyer outside Jasper and sent into the electrical grid.

Citizens argued that Jasper’s air quality was already compromised and that the biomass plant would worsen it. They cited a 2008 report in USA Today, “The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools,” on a study by investigators from Johns Hopkins University and the universities of Massachusetts and Maryland whicj performed an in-depth analysis of the air quality at more than 128,000 American schools. Jasper’s Tenth Street and Holy Family schools scored worse than 95 percent of the nation’s schools.

Further, Jasper was in nonattainment, a category designated by the Clean Air Act and EPA for areas where air pollution levels persistently exceed National Air Quality Standards. Citizens argued that pollution from a biomass plant would further jeopardize the city’s air quality, according to Healthy Dubois County’s website.

Kreilein said in a phone interview that she sees “rampant” respiratory disease in the county.

Another local physician, Dr. Steven O’Connor, concurred.

“We, as physicians, take seriously the health, safety, and overall well-being of our patients and community,” he said. “We are on the front line of treating respiratory illnesses such as asthma, and we are very concerned. There is simply not enough information to justify supporting the proposed biomass power plant,” according to the website.

Local newspapers published more than 30 letters opposing the plant, and people posted more than 700 signs in their yards.

A petition opposing biomass and supporting a clean air ordinance garnered 500 signatures after only a few hours of canvassing and more when left on the counters of three coffee shops in Jasper over a few weeks.

Opponents mailed 4,500 pamphlets to local residents and created a website.

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Public officials, meanwhile, sped nonstop down the highway to biomass. On Dec. 20, 2010, at a combined USB and common council executive session, which by definition excluded the public, the USB recommended Twisted Oaks but said the decision was months away, according to the Herald.

On March 21, 2011, the paper said, the city signed a “memorandum of understanding with . . . Twisted Oak to begin the negotiation process for the proposed lease of the city’s power plant.”

On March 23, 60 people turned out for a USB meeting, with half the meeting taken up with discussions of the plant.

In April, the opponents held a “walk for clean air.”

On May 11, the Ferdinand, Ind., News published an open letter from 40 Jasper physicians stating, “We as concerned healthcare professionals are opposed to Twisted Oak’s biomass power plant and any further negotiations with Jay Catasein,” the president and CEO of Twisted Oak.

At a May 16 USB meeting, board member Rick Stradtner, a pharmacist, expressed dismay that negotiations were taking place “behind closed doors,” according to the Herald.

As of May 27, there were 53 signatories to the health professionals’ open letter.

On June 23, more than 100 people packed a council meeting; none of those speaking favored the biomass plant. And on the 28th, people protested outside city hall against a joint executive session that was taking place between the council and USB.

On July 26, during the second and only other formal public forum held on the biomass proposal, 30 of 33 speakers, including several local physicians, spoke out against the plant.

The forum lasted more than four hours. Each person was allowed four minutes to talk. A common theme was the city wasn’t listening to what the residents wanted and what the physicians were saying, putting the residents’ health at risk for financial gain.

Instrumental in halting biomass plants in Crawford and Scott counties in Indiana, Dr. William Sammons, a pediatrician and expert on the health effects of biomass incineration, testified at the forum.

On July 28, Wayne Schuetter, chair of the USB, wrote a guest column in the Herald claiming that the “lease’s benefits outweigh minimal emission,” and, on Aug., 1 Mayor Schmitt said he would “endorse the proposal to lease” and hoped the council and USB would vote on it soon. According to the Dubois County Free Press, he also said he saw no need for further public forums.

On Aug. 5, the council and USB voted “yes” on the lease. Rick Stradtner’s was the lone “no” vote on the USB, and the vote in the council was unanimous.

On the same day the recently formed Healthy Dubois County, Inc., a grassroots organization opposing the plant, filed a lawsuit against the city alleging that the council and USB violated Indiana’s Open Door Law in seven executive sessions from July 2009 to June 2011. According to the Herald, the complaint asked the court to “declare invalid any decisions made by defendants during or based upon the above referenced illegal executive sessions.”

The Indiana Open Door Law, said the Herald, “allows officials to hold closed-door executive sessions only in certain cases, including certain situations where the city is negotiating the sale or lease of property.”

In some cases, the plaintiffs alleged, “the information discussed in the executive session did not fall within the accepted parameters set out by the law,” according to the Herald. In other cases, the plaintiffs alleged, those holding the executive sessions didn’t issue the required 48 hours’ notice beforehand.

Mayor Schmitt, on his last day in office, Dec. 29, 2011, signed the lease. When newly elected Mayor Terry Seitz took office on Jan. 1, 2012, he told the Herald, “I am bound to put that lease in force. My mayoral duties would bind me to do that.” However, when he was campaigning for mayor, he’d issued a position paper opposing the biomass plant.

The trial was in December, and the judge found in favor of the city. Attorneys for the opponents filed a notice of intent to appeal the decision.

Healthy Dubois County filed its appeal in early June 2012, according to Rock Emmert, a leading opponent of the biomass proposal. The appeal alleged that the city held 12–15 private meetings in a direct attempt to circumvent the Open Door Law. It also alleged that the city’s actions lacked transparency in that it refused to grant “discovery”—to release emails, notes from those and other meetings and official conversations. Further, it alleged that the judge refused to enforce her own ruling that the city must turn over all its records and also refused to delay the trial.

The city filed a notice to respond and received a 30-day extension to file its brief. As of mid-July 2012, there was no response from the city.

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Dr. Kreilein announced in an April 26 email that she was moving her practice to Washington, Ind., saying her experience fighting the biomass plant “had a profound change on my life. Up until that time I mistakenly assumed that my city government would be responsive to direct engagement from a concerned educated professional.”

“Instead, I have been met with retaliation and ‘nonresponse.’ I have been so disgusted with the lack of response that I have decided to relocate my practice of 23 years to a different community. I never anticipated such pervasive greed and manipulation.”

Rev. Chris Breedlove, also a leader of the opposition, and his family left Jasper for Sacramento, Calif. He cited the biomass project as one of the reasons for the move.

As Breedlove said in a March 2012 email, several issues have never been addressed. For one, the community never received an independent health impact study on the proposed plant.

The issue of using miscanthus as fuel was never fully addressed, either, Breedlove said in a July 2012 email. Miscanthus is a favorite food of the corn rootworm, which can easily move to corn from miscanthus and devastate corn crops, such as those grown in Dubois County.

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Even if Healthy Dubois County loses its appeal, the cause won’t necessarily be lost. Twisted Oak has to obtain air and water permits from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. Those permits can be challenged, and have been successfully challenged in other Indiana counties. Those challenges have resulted in victories over biomass.

Linda Greene can be reached at lgreene@bloomington.in.us.

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