BRATTLEBORO — A biomass project at Long Falls Paperboard Company is no longer being pursued by Brattleboro Development Credit Corp.
Last year, BDCC received a $1 million federal grant through the Northern Border Regional Commission. The money was for a feasibility study, design and permitting for a facility that would be based at the plant leased to Long Falls on BDCC-owned property in Brattleboro.
“For a variety of reasons that are complex and multilayered, BDCC worked with Northern Border to de-obligate those funds late last spring,” said Adam Grinold, BDCC’s executive director.
Without the grant, Grinold said, the project could not move forward as envisioned in the original grant application. He called the coronavirus pandemic “the big consideration.”
“It was our conclusion that the project would not be able to conclude timely and successful, and it would be best to return those funds at this point,” he said, adding that none of the funds were spent.
The project’s price tag was estimated at somewhere between $14.8 million and $26.4 million. Long Falls secured a $250,000 Wood Innovations Grant via the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service but it wasn’t anticipated to take effect until purchase orders were ready to be made.
In an application for that grant, Long Falls said the biomass facility would serve heat and power needs for the company while replacing fossil fuel energy use at the plant. The project also was described as a way to provide a new market for forest product residuals, support existing jobs and create new ones.
BDCC was expected to hire a contractor “to complete final design, engineering and permitting,” according to the application. The group would have “oversight responsibility of pre-construction design and engineering.”
Attempts to reach Mike Cammenga, principal of Long Falls, and the forest service were unsuccessful.
Cammenga previously told the Reformer the plan was to bring energy costs in line with competitors and ensure the longevity of the paper mill. He said oil or gas prices are extremely high in Vermont — as much as three to four times higher than neighboring states.
Eesha Williams of Dummerston viewed news about the project being canceled as a victory for those who opposed the project due to environmental concerns.
“To me, it’s simple,” he said. “People saw the problems and organized.”
Williams said he believes BDCC learned a lesson from when thousands of people protested Vermont Yankee and hundreds were arrested for civil disobedience. The Vernon nuclear plant is now being decommissioned, having closed in December 2014 because of shifting market forces.
Grinold said when the decision to return the grant for the biomass project was made, his group had not yet heard from anyone opposed to the project. He recalled people asking for information but not sharing direct concerns. Since then, he said, he has read about people who are against the project.
A petition was being signed to bring to the Brattleboro Select Board, and Williams organized a march for next month. Both have now been canceled. (See a letter to the editor from Williams regarding the cancellation on page A4 today).
Williams said he suggested to a Long Falls official that the company look into solar panels for its energy needs.
“There are alternatives,” he said.
His “next fight” involves stopping logging on national and state lands.
“One way to stop climate change is to leave trees where they are,” he said. “People talk about planting trees but that takes such a long time.”
Trees, he said, “hold so much carbon.”
With the Long Falls project no longer happening, Williams estimated the equivalent of 131,000 50-year-old trees will be saved each year. The figure is based on the company’s projection that annually, as much as 131,000 tons of “low grade wood resources” would be used.
“This new market will be of enormous regional value to forest health and productivity treatments on the nearby Green Mountain National Forest and other private and public forestlands in the procurement region for the plant,” states the grant application.
Citing information from biologicaldiversity.org, Williams worried the biomass facility could have been worse for climate change than coal.
The project was a regular item on the Brattleboro Energy Committee’s meeting agendas. The committee never took a stance one way or another.
“It does have the climate community split,” said Oscar Heller, committee chairman, “because biomass can be pretty good if it’s locally sourced and there’s not a lot of transport involved and it’s a genuine waste product that would have been wasted any way.”
His understanding is that the plant had specific energy needs that could only be met with coal, oil, biomass or not being in business. He said closing might be the best choice for activists.
“It might be a hard sell, even for me,” he said. “We don’t know everything about what went on but it may end up being a bad thing climate wise that this project can’t move forward.”