Board postpones vote on air quality permit for UM biomass boiler

By Chelsi Moy – The Missoulian

Board postpones vote on air quality permit for UM biomass boiler

UM has the potential to exceed federal ambient air quality standards outside the heating plant with its existing natural gas boilers. Photo By NBC

After a lively conversation before a crowded room, members of the Missoula Air Pollution Control Board decided holding a Wednesday night vote on the University of Montana’s controversial air quality permit would be a bit hasty.

The seven-member board will take up the issue at its next meeting on Nov. 17 and will then decide whether to issue, deny, modify, suspend or revoke an air quality permit to UM, which the university seeks in order to build a woody-biomass gasification boiler on campus to work in conjunction with its existing natural gas boilers.

The hearing addressed an appeal by a coalition of environmental groups, including the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan and the Montana Ecosystem Defense Council. The groups, represented by attorney Elizabeth Erickson, are primarily concerned that the university’s proposed boiler will “increase air pollution in an already compromised airshed,” Erickson said. But she also touched on UM’s transparency to date, and the discovery that UM has the potential to exceed federal ambient air quality standards outside the heating plant with its existing natural gas boilers.

“We’ve made huge leaps and bounds in progress and to have a new project that could make it go in the other direction is hard for citizens to stomach,” she said.

The appellants requested the board reject the permit, and at the very least, suspend the permit until further analysis is performed.

Garon Smith, a UM chemistry professor, questioned why Erickson’s clients weren’t interested in Missoula’s air quality when the board revised the county’s air regulations in 2010.

“Only now do you show up?” he asked.

County Commissioner Jean Curtis wondered whether Erickson’s clients truly opposed UM’s proposed biomass boiler or rather opposed removing anything from Montana’s forests.

“Is really the agenda not to have forests managed?” she asked.

UM, on the other hand, argued that while it’s important to compare the emissions of natural gas and biomass, it’s also important to realize that UM is proposing the cleanest biomass boiler in the state and will emit far less than the industry standard for biomass boilers of similar size.

The health department not only placed more stringent opacity standards in UM’s air quality permit, but it also required the boiler have a 24-hour sound-alarming opacity monitor.

However, monitoring opacity – clearer emissions are cleaner emissions – doesn’t directly measure the amount of small particulate matters emitted into the air. That concerned board member Tom Roberts, a local doctor. Roberts also expressed concern that the boiler’s modeled small particulate matter emissions may come close to the federal limits. And stack tests – which are how emissions levels are measured – are performed 180 days after beginning operation and then every three to five years.

There are ways to calculate whether emission levels are exceeding the air quality regulations by looking at opacity measures, said Ben Schmidt, an environmental health specialist for the Missoula City-County Health Department.

Plus, said biomass project manager Tom Javins, UM has received a guarantee from the boiler manufacturer. If the boiler is not meeting air quality emissions standards, they have to fix the problem on their dime.

“That’s slightly reassuring,” Robert said.

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