Biomass plant arguments heat up again this week

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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A hearings examiner will listen to arguments this week on Clark County’s proposed biomass plant in downtown Vancouver.

The hearing starts at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Vancouver City Hall, 415 W. Sixth St., in the council chambers.

The biomass plant is the second item on the docket, so it will start closer to 7 p.m.

The hearings examiner will be Sharon Rice, an attorney from Shoreline.

Planning Review Manager Chad Eiken, who ruled last month that a biomass facility isn’t an allowable use under city zoning codes, said Rice will issue a written opinion within two weeks of the hearing.

Her decision could be appealed to Clark County Superior Court.

Schneider Electric, a company Clark County has partnered with to build a biomass-fueled electricity plant, paid $1,165 to appeal Eiken’s ruling.

Schneider Electric’s attorneys, LeAnne Bremer and Stephen Horenstein of Miller Nash, argue Eiken was wrong when he concluded that wood waste is not a solid waste and therefore not allowed.

Bremer and Horenstein also argue that a biomass plant is similar to other permitted uses in the light-industrial district.

“The impacts from hazardous waste handling facilities, food plants, fabricated metal shops, and other allowed uses are similar and could be greater,” they wrote.

The county and Schneider want to build a plant at West 11th and Harney streets where wood waste, such as tree limbs, would be burned. The county already owns the land.

The Vancouver City Council has been less than receptive to the county’s plans and neighborhood associations and other members of the public have criticized the proposal.

Clark County Commissioners Marc Boldt and Tom Mielke voted to sign a contract with Schneider.

Commissioner Steve Stuart said he had too many reservations to support the project.

If the deal falls through due to zoning issues or market forces, the county still must pay Schneider a minimum of $75,000. If the project goes ahead, the company plans to invest up to $1.2 million of its own money to develop the plant.

The longer the county and Schneider work together, the more the county’s liability increases. The county has a maximum liability of $395,000.

Clark County General Services Director Mark McCauley said Friday that Schneider has continued working on the project so if the ruling goes the county’s way the project can be far enough along to take advantage of a federal 1603 Treasury Grant. The grant program, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is set to expire Dec. 31 and could cover up to 30 percent of the project’s cost.

Currently, Clark County currently operates 11 boilers for its downtown campus.

A new central heating plant would replace fossil-fuel heating with one central facility that uses woody debris as fuel.

The biomass boiler system would provide central heating, cooling and domestic water heating for five county buildings: the Public Service Center, courthouse, jail, 911 call center and juvenile courthouse. Schneider would sell excess power, expected to be up to 4 megawatts. According to a Sept. 15 county update on the project, Schneider has surveyed potential purchasers and expects to begin negotiations.

“Initial survey results show there are several potential power purchasers who will support the project’s financial criteria,” according to the update.

Existing power lines have adequate capacity to carry the energy load, and the Bonneville Power Administration has supported the project, according to the update.

Schneider, a global company with headquarters in France, would build, finance and operate the plant, with no money from taxpayers. It would also lease the land from the county, paying what is expected to be $1.5 million over 20 years.

The biomass plant could cost up to $28 million, according to a county report.

During a work session last week, commissioners heard an update on the county’s environmental goals. The county has reduced its total greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent from 2008 to 2010 through facility improvements and fleet reductions, the equivalent of taking 900 vehicles off the road.

The county has estimated the plant would save $11 million over 20 years and reduce fossil-fuel emissions from the existing county boilers by about 28,660 tons a year. That’s the equivalent of removing 6,200 cars from roads or taking 3,700 homes off the electricity grid.

Stephanie Rice: http://www.facebook.com/reporterrice; http://www.twitter.com/col_clarkgov; 360-735-4508; stephanie.rice@columbian.com.