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Gainesville Biomass Plant Clears Cabinet

By: Keith Laing, The News Service of Florida
By: Keith Laing, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Dec. 7, 2010 --

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Florida Cabinet approved on Tuesday the final certification to a 100-megawatt wood burning power plant near Gainesville over the objections of a group of neighbors and environmentalists who called on the panel to defer the issue until legal appeals have been concluded.

The approval came at the urging of a clearly weary outgoing Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson, who has championed biomass technology in recent years as way to wean the state off foreign oil in addition to other alternative energy sources like wind and solar.

“I’ve only spoken before the (Public Service Commission) one time in my whole nine-and-a-half years as commissioner of agriculture,” said Bronson, who called on the PSC to approve the plant earlier this spring. “This issue is important because I’ve watched two different types of facilities locally – one here in Leon County and one in Gasden County – that were basically shouted down and shut out because of misinformation - faulty if not misleading science - that was being reported on the amounts of carbon being released.

“No one’s even seen one of these one of those plants. They don’t even know what the filtering system looks like,” Bronson concluded.

But opponents lined up at Tuesday’s meeting of the Cabinet, sitting as the power plant siting board.

Local officials in Gainesville say residents of the city are willing to pay more for the plant, which is a joint project of Gainesville Regional Utilities and Gainesville Renewable Energy Center, LLC, and is planned to produce 100 megawatts of electricity.

That is one-seventh of the city's total electricity usage, though plans call for half of the electricity that the biomass plant would produce to be sold to other utility companies looking to increase the amount of renewable energy they use.

The Cabinet ruling was the latest affirmative vote on the issue. In addition to the PSC, an administrative law judge has also ruled in favor of the plant.

The Department of Environmental Protection recommended the Cabinet approval for locating the plant in the heavily wooded central Florida region, but critics complained Tuesday again about the potential health hazards and the production of greenhouse gases.

“This is not green energy,” said Maria Minno, who owns an environmental consulting and environmental education firm called Eco-Cognizant, Inc with her husband, Marc. “Biomass incineration has unacceptable health risks. I would like to make a wish that the people who are promoting this knew a little more about the environmental health.”

Maria Parsons of the Gainesville Neighborhood Protection Group agreed.

“A lot of people in our community are dying because of dioxins,” Parson told the governor and Cabinet. “We do not need additional dioxins. People are sick, people are dying, people are scared and no one at all levels of government have been there for us. I’m appealing to your sense of humanity, I’m appealing to your sense of compassion, please do not approve this. Gainesville does not need more dioxins.”

Backers counted that the plant would use state of the art technology and primarily burn waste wood from nearby tree farms that would otherwise be burned in the field or land filled.

Bronson urged the governor and Cabinet to accept those arguments because that was the only way to fully prove their accuracy.

“We’ve got to get these plants, at least one or two of them up so they can prove they don’t emit the sulfur and nitrites and other things that everyone says that they do until we get these up and see what the filter systems really are capable of doing,” he said. “ Quite frankly I’m ready to turn this over to the incoming commissioner-elect and let him have some fun, because I have heard so many misrepresentations about the facts of science involved in this that it’s getting pretty aggravating.”

His evident frustration notwithstanding, in one of his final public appearances as agriculture commissioner, Bronson made the case for biomass generally again.

“It’ll be man-produced, farmable, sustainable timber type programs, just like we do for paper, just like we do for other timber products for our homes,” he said. “It’ll be grown for that purpose and used for that purpose and it’ll be a lot cleaner than anybody is trying to indicate that it is.”

Outgoing Attorney General Bill McCollum did not indicate if he agreed with the objections raised by Minno, Parsons and a host of others, but he said the governor and Cabinet did not have the leeway to consider the merits of their arguments.

“The only thing we can do if we said no to this is, we have to say some finding of fact by the judge was wrong that we determined here today or some matter of law that the administrative law judge was wrong on,” he said. “It’s sort of like a football game where the pass is caught and they try to rule maybe he didn’t catch it and they review the film and all of that, it’s got to be very much apparent before its reversed, and we don’t have anything that’s apparent by the judge today.”

In his final month as the 44th governor of Florida, Crist was more direct. He said he wanted to see the plant built.

“I think this can be a great breakthrough and I think it is the right thing to do, particularly after hearing the comments from Commissioner Bronson,” said Crist, who was once regarded nationally as one of the most environmentally-friendly Republican leaders – when he was a Republican. “The groups that have supported this, I have great trust and confidence in them.”

Crist and the Cabinet unanimously approved the plant.


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