BUCKSPORT, Maine — The local Verso Paper mill is one of dozens of biomass-burning facilities in 25 states that an environmental energy policy organization says creates more pollution than modern coal plants.

In a report publicly released Wednesday, the Partnership for Policy Integrity criticized governmental policies that set lower emissions standards for biomass plants and gives them subsidies and tax-credits as “clean energy” facilities. In doing so, the group used the Verso mill as an example of that perceived problem.

The Verso mill is “permitted to emit more pollution than comparable coal plants or commercial waste incinerators, even as they are subsidized by state and federal renewable energy dollars,” the group indicated in a statement released Wednesday. “Both [the Verso mill and the Burgess Biopower plant in Berlin, N.H.,] are located immediately adjacent to residential areas.”

In all, the group reviewed 88 emissions permits for biomass power plants in 25 states. It found that biomass plants are permitted to emit more nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and carbon monoxide per megawatt hour than modern coal plants, though modern coal plants produce more sulfur dioxide.

Biomass plant emissions of major pollutants exceed those of natural gas plants by more than 800 percent, the group added, and produce nearly 50 percent more carbon dioxide per megawatt than coal.

In a brief email, Bill Cohen, spokesman for the Bucksport mill, said Wednesday that “bad data and faulty assumptions” have been used in the PFPI report and others like it.

“This biomass attack is not unique to Verso or Bucksport, but as we look at the data in the report, we do not understand how they arrived at their conclusion,” Cohen wrote. “Their data does not match our current operating permit nor our current operating data.”

An official with the American Lung Association said in the PFPI statement that his group is opposed to granting renewable energy subsidies for biomass combustion because of the pollution concerns.

“Why are we using taxpayer dollars to subsidize power plants that are more polluting than coal?” said Jeff Seyler, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Northeast.

In its report, PFPI specifically claims that Verso’s biomass boiler in Bucksport is permitted to burn fuel oil, waste oil, mill waste treatment sludge, paper core rolls and construction and demolition waste wood, among other things. It is allowed to release double the amount of particulate matter in its emissions than that achieved by other biomass and coal plants permitted under the Clean Air Act, according to the report. It also indicates the plant has triple the limit for nitrogen oxide emissions over a 24-hour period than other permitted plants subject to Clean Air Act standards.

In a media conference call on Tuesday, Mary Booth, director of PFPI, said that though biomass energy is considered cleaner than old coal-fired plants, it generates more pollution than modern coal-fired facilities. She said that while some larger coal facilities may produce more pollution overall, the emissions per megawatt-hour for biomass plants are greater than modern plants that use other fuels.

The group claims that weak Environmental Protection Agency rules allow biomass plants such as the one in Bucksport to emit more hazardous air pollutants such as heavy metals and dioxins. It also said that new rules adopted by the federal agency allow more burning of demolition debris and other waste at biomass plants.

“The new biomass burning unit at the Verso Bucksport plant will also burn a variety of potentially contaminated fuels,” Booth said. “The plant was permitted with some of the weakest emission standards in the country. Firing up these old polluting mills with a technology that’s even more polluting than coal or gas, then allowing them to collect renewable energy subsidies, is a policy only polluters could love.”

In 2010, when Verso announced the project to install the new boiler, it was touted by company officials as an environmentally friendly and cost-effective project that could help supply power to the regional power grid. The boiler, which began operating in 2012, would eliminate about 90 percent of the fossil fuel used, including all coal and tire-derived fuel, and would use natural gas only to start up and then use biomass to create steam, company officials said at the time.

“This project represents what Verso stands for when it comes to our position as a green energy company and as a leader in environmental stewardship,” Mike Jackson, then president and CEO of Verso, said at a November 2010 groundbreaking ceremony. “We will have the ability to generate more green energy from renewable biomass, which reduces our carbon footprint, all while reducing costs.”

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....