Local biomass plant foes urged to get angry

Activist: Organization also key to scuttling proposal

By Craig Brown, Columbian Metro Editor

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An avowed opponent of biomass energy plants, such as the one proposed near the Clark County Courthouse, had this advice for local activists Sunday: “Where we’ve been successful is where we have taken off the gloves.”

So it was no surprise Duff Badgley of Seattle titled his talk, “Poison: Lethal Incinerator in Downtown Vancouver.” In a two-hour session organized by leaders of the Hough Neighborhood Association, he outlined his opposition to biomass plants and presented tips for those who would like to defeat it.

At issue is a joint project between Clark County government and Schneider Electric, a multinational corporation with a biomass team based in Washington state. They have signed an agreement calling for construction of a $25 million incinerator to burn woody debris — biomass — on county-owned property at the corner of West 11th and Harney streets. The biomass plant’s boiler system would provide heating, cooling and hot water for five nearby county buildings, including the courthouse and jail. The county would save money on its utility bills and receive rental income. Schneider would market the electricity at a profit.

But Badgley told a crowd of about 30 people gathered at the Pop Culture soda shop that biomass plants carry a heavy price in terms of the air pollution from particulates, carbon dioxide and other emissions.

He urged the neighbors — the Hough Neighborhood Association took a formal stand against the plant last July — to organize and fight.

Badgley said he has been involved in fighting nine other biomass plants in Washington, and successfully defeated two of them.

“Don’t think we don’t know how to win. We do,” he said. But he said it takes a “confrontational, deliberately inflammatory style.”

Among the tactics he recommends: confrontations at public meetings, street protests, petition drives and lawsuits. The hardball style is justified, he said, because of the extreme danger to public health he believes the plants pose. Proponents of the plants and other groups see much less potential hazard from such facilities, but Badgley stands by his arguments that biomass plants lead to respiratory problems, cancer and a higher risk of premature death.

He said that at public meetings, opponents shouldn’t just say they oppose the plant. Instead, they should say, “Why are you proposing something that will kill our children? We demand that you do not kill our children.”

Arguments around emissions of particulate matter have caught the public’s attention in other communities, Badgley said, showing data that some biomass plants in Massachusetts emit more particles than Portland General Electric’s controversial coal plant near Boardman, Ore.

Other tips for activists: Get an organization, a name and a website. Distribute fliers at public events and hold public meetings.

“This needs to have a commitment that is fierce,” Badgley said.

Eileen Cowan, co-chairwoman of the Hough Neighborhood Association, said the group will show its opposition by appearing at a Tuesday open house organized by Clark County and Schneider. It will be from 7 to 9 p.m. at the new Vancouver Community Library.

“We need to work on what we need to do to make this not a reality,” she said.

One unusual wrinkle in the local proposal is the Vancouver city government’s opposition. Vancouver has challenged the plant’s siting on the grounds that it is not an allowed use under the city’s zoning ordinance.

A hearings examiner has heard the case and a ruling is expected this month. It’s possible the matter will wind up in Clark County Superior Court.

Badgley said grass-roots opponents are lucky to have the city’s opposition; for one thing, it allows the city to foot the bill for the attorneys. But he warned neighbors not to be complacent and rely on the city to handle the fight.

“Get angry and stay angry,” he advised. “How to manifest that anger is up to you.”

Stephanie Rice of The Columbian contributed to this report. Craig Brown: 360-735-4514; craig.brown@columbian.com.