By Kathleen Foody and Amy Ryan
Wausau Daily Herald and

The battle over a proposed wood-burning energy plant in Rothschild pits neighbors against neighbors and leaves others in a plume of confusion over who’s right and who’s wrong. In a comprehensive report, Gannett Central Wisconsin Media today sorts through the controversy and separates facts from fears.

ROTHSCHILD  — Terry and Harvey Hanson specifically chose a plot of land near the Domtar paper mill when they built their home in 1991, knowing they also would be close to other large factories and the Weston Power plant.

The dominance of industry on Rothschild’s west side was a benefit to the Hansons because it allowed Harvey to walk to the mill, where he worked as a boiler operator in the finishing room.

“There are three industrial places all around us, and they’ve been here forever,” Terry Hanson said. “If you bought a house here, you had to know something was going on.”

Even now, with We Energies proposing construction of a new biomass plant next to the mill and her husband retiring, Hanson says she is confident about her safety.

“In this day and age, big businesses can’t get away with the things companies got away with years ago with pollution,” she said. “The EPA watches them like a hawk.”

Others don’t share Hanson’s conviction. Opponents fear the plant will cause more air pollution in the region, and they say health concerns outweigh any benefits.

The controversy makes Rothschild ground zero in a complicated and often emotional national debate about exactly how “green” wood-burning generators are. As similar proposals emerge across the country, scientific studies question whether trees will regrow fast enough to convert the carbon released into the air during biomass burning — the crux of “green” claims by proponents of biomass plants.

Residents and officials here and elsewhere are being forced to decide whether their concerns about biomass’ environmental effects overrule the promise of badly needed jobs and a chance to support the advancement of renewable energy.

That conflict exists for communities far beyond central Wisconsin’s borders, but it is intensely personal to Rothschild and Wausau-area residents, both those who trust that the local project will be safe and those who don’t.

The energy argument

The biomass plant proposed for Rothschild is intended to help We Energies meet a state mandate that 10 percent of energy consumed in Wisconsin come from renewable resources by 2015.

We Energies chose Rothschild for simple reasons: The Domtar plant has established relationships with timber companies and is located in the heart of Wisconsin’s lumber country.

Biomass plants come in many forms, but the common denominator is that they burn waste to release energy and power generators. In the case of the Rothschild plant, the waste burned would be the tops and limbs of trees that are left on the forest floor when timber is harvested. Steam generated by the plant would be used by Domtar and also to produce electricity for the rest of the state.

Proponents of the plant say it actually will reduce emissions at Domtar by 30 percent because it will allow the paper mill to retire a biomass-burning boiler it has been using for decades. The boiler was converted from coal to wood waste 35 years ago, but it still burns much dirtier than a new boiler would, the companies say.

They also say the plant would be carbon-neutral. Burning wood waste releases carbon into the atmosphere, but so does leaving that waste on the forest floor to decompose naturally.

And when timber is harvested, new trees are planted — trees that absorb carbon from the atmosphere as they grow.

Critics point to a handful of studies that have found biomass plants to be anything but green — perhaps even dirtier than coal-fired generators. Opponents such as Rothschild resident Rob Hughes, who lives within sight of the Domtar mill, say they don’t trust We Energies, Domtar or the state to ensure that the plant will be cleaner.

They question why Rothschild would want to be host to a plant that could harm local residents while producing electricity destined to be used by We Energies customers in Milwaukee.

“I just can’t have the blind faith in either my government or corporate responsibility anymore,” said Hughes, a member of Saving Our Air Resources, or SOAR, a group dedicated to defeating the biomass proposal. “I have no horse in this fight except my 10-month-old and my wife. I need to know this is safe.”

How safe is it?

No one seems able to offer a conclusive answer to the concerns of Hughes and other SOAR members. Any determination of whether a biomass plant would be safe and environmentally friendly would have to weigh an array of scientific studies and practical application of specific wood-harvesting policies.

And all that is mired in controversy.

Perhaps the most damning opinion on the environmental effects of biomass came from a study of several proposed plants in Massachusetts. Performed by a team of scientists at the Manomet Center for Conservation Studies in Massachusetts, biomass opponents regard the study as conclusive evidence that burning woody biomass is worse for the environment than burning coal.

The Manomet study did find that burning woody biomass generates more greenhouse gases than coal — but only because Massachusetts would have to harvest standing trees for biomass rather than waste left behind by foresters, and didn’t have an existing plan to replace harvested forests, Manomet President John Hagan wrote.

Hagan issued a statement warning against oversimplification of the study’s results. He particularly took issue with reporting only that wood is worse for the environment than coal, a conclusion that SOAR and other organizations have seized upon.

John Gunn, a senior program leader at Manomet who worked on the Massachusetts study, said any community considering biomass first should evaluate what kind of material will be burned and how that material would otherwise have been used.

“The assumption people make about tops and limbs is that they would have decayed and let off carbon dioxide anyway,” Gunn said. “So if you’re capturing the energy associated with that, replacing the use of fossil fuel, people assume an instant neutrality.”

It’s more complicated than that, he said. State and county officials and members of the forestry industry have to create policies that allow forests to regrow and maintain a balance between carbon released during burning and carbon absorbed by plant life.

A burning debate

Domtar already uses about 130,000 tons of chipped wood as fuel each year, but the new plant is expected to require 500,000 tons every year.

On the surface, it seems implausible that burning more than three times as much wood could result in fewer particles and other chemicals being released into the air.

But newer boilers such as those planned for the We Energies plant burn wood faster and more efficiently than old boilers, We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey said, resulting in a net 30 percent reduction of emissions.

Domtar and We Energies were required to perform computer models measuring for the quantity of particles sent out into the air as part of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission’s application process. The program measures the concentration of particles and other emissions leaving the plant when it’s running full-steam, 24 hours a day, every day for five years.

The models indicated the plant still would be within federal standards for emissions and air quality at full capacity, though the plant will never actually run at 100 percent, Manthey said.

Those models, officials say, also prove that emissions from the mill complex will decrease if the new plant is built.

“It’s technology that the paper industry has already been using for years,” said Terry Charles, spokesman for Domtar.

Furthermore, the 260-foot chimney proposed for the new plant would be higher than Domtar’s existing chimney and would disperse emissions over a larger area, allowing air quality in Rothschild to remain about the same as it is now, Manthey said.

Manthey said the data We Energies has provided will be scrutinized intensely by state regulators determining whether to permit the plant and the state will continue oversight throughout its operation, if approved.

“It’s a stark reality, black and white,” he said. “Either we operate at permitted levels or we don’t operate at all.”

The emissions equation

Manthey said the new plant would cut by 30 percent emissions of five federally regulated pollutants at Domtar: nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and organic compounds.

That figure has been the subject of scorn from plant opponents.

Critics say Rothschild and Marathon County residents already are choking in pollution. In 2008, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reported that Marathon County had the third-highest amount of particulate matter — visible liquid and solid particles suspended in the air — among Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Rothschild alone was fifth among more than 200 Wisconsin cities in the same category, topping Milwaukee, Wausau and Mosinee.

Particulate matter is monitored by the government because high levels can cause respiratory problems over time. The microscopic gunk can enter humans’ lungs, causing coughing or shortness of breath, particularly for people with existing heart or lung disease.

The damage that particulate matter can cause to human respiratory health prompted the American Lung Association to discourage additional congressional incentives for biomass-burning power plants. The organization’s president, Charles Connor, said in a June 2009 letter to Congress that wind, solar or geothermal technology should be promoted instead of biomass.

Biomass opponents also fault We Energies for not including one other critical pollutant in its total emissions statistic: carbon dioxide. CO2 emissions at the plant are expected to nearly quadruple, from 148,000 tons annually to 590,000 tons annually, if the new plant is built.

We Energies and other members of the biomass industry say technology negates that larger figure. In theory, as more trees are planted to replace those burned as biomass, carbon dioxide will be consumed by trees that absorb it.

Hughes says he’s not convinced that will pan out in practice if the plant burns 500,000 tons of chipped wood each year.

“We want to know it’s safe,” said Hughes.

It’s the economy

Energy and safety are just one part of the biomass equation. The other is jobs.

Drive through Wausau’s south side and neighborhoods around the Domtar mill and you’ll come across dozens of neon green and navy blue yard signs dotting the lawns of houses. “Biomass yes, jobs yes,” the signs read, summing up the strongest motivation for pro-biomass residents.

Some of those signs are in the Rothschild yard of Pattie Pientkewic, 38, who first heard about the proposed plant from customers at the Green Mill restaurant, where she works as a waitress and bartender.

“They come in every night. I don’t even know their names, but they’re part of the whole biomass battle,” she said. “I heard them talking about it and I started asking questions.”

Pientkewic learned her customers work with the Lynne Broydrick Group, a public relations firm based in Milwaukee that is working with We Energies to market the plant. After talking with them, Pientkewic came to the conclusion that the plant would be good for the community.

“We have no jobs in Rothschild, so this would help bring more employment opportunities,” she said. “I know they will be bringing some contractors up from Madison, but that will keep hotels and restaurants busy.”

In fact, the plant promises to create more than 500 jobs — too many to pass up in this economy, even if a majority of those positions are temporary, proponents say.

“Domtar stands to gain something from this, but so does the community. So does Rothschild,” said Hanson, whose husband recently retired from the Domtar mill. “They’re going to make energy for the paper mill, who will in turn make jobs and people will spend money in our area.”

A project as large as the proposed plant could bring work opportunities to trades that have been out of work for months, said Gary Ruhl, business development representative for the Northeast Wisconsin Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents unions in every industry needed for plant construction.

“Construction is the only industry where we go to work every day to put ourselves out of a job,” Ruhl said. “That’s the reality of it. A project starts, a project ends.”

Boldt Construction has signed on to manage the construction of the $250 million Rothschild plant, pending its approval. Bob DeKoch, chief operating officer for the Appleton-based company, says 400 union workers will be needed at the peak of the two-year construction process with specialties in concrete, steel, piping, electrical work and sheet metal.

But construction jobs are just part of the economic promise the plant holds for proponents.

Fueling the fire

Tripling the amount of wood waste used by Domtar could make an enormous difference for the timber industry in central Wisconsin, said Henry Schienebeck, executive director of the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association. The trade group represents about 1,000 members including harvesters, chippers and transporters of timber and biofuel to the paper industry and other consumers.

“There’s still a lot of forest out there not putting out its full potential,” Schienebeck said. “And our industry has been in a downhill slide for the last couple years as we lose markets for pulpwood with paper mills shutting down. The demand for biomass is coming, and we want the market.”

Although the timber industry has a financial motivation to support the proposal, Schienebeck said it has a stronger motivation to protect local forests from overuse. That includes chipping whole trees into biofuel, taking the product away from paper mills and threatening those large
consumers for the timber industry, he said.

“We want the high-quality wood to keep going (to paper mills),” Schienebeck said. “Let’s say a power plant came in (burning the trunks of trees) and created 45 jobs, but in the process we lose 200 or 250 jobs from the mill.”

Mark Schreiner, co-owner of Schreiner Forestry in Athens, invested in a chipper when paper companies demanded more fuel for their own plants. But as that industry has struggled, Schreiner’s expensive investment has sat idle, although he continues to provide hardwood for
paper production at the existing Domtar mill.

“Biomass is definitely on our minds,” Schreiner said. “It all comes down to what’s feasible and what kind of price they’ll give us per ton.”

Schreiner and his brother Mike employ nine people now and expect to add several more employees if the We Energies plant is completed — and the price is right.

Rick Graap, owner of Graap Logging of Merrill, said he expects to need four or five more workers to run a grinder and transport more biofuel to
Rothschild. Graap bought a grinder to provide biofuel to the existing Domtar plant, and the opportunity to put it to use more often would make the expense more worthwhile.

More business for him also means more business for the providers of trucks, maintenance work, tires and other suppliers for tools used in forestry, he said.

Both business owners said they’ve attended biomass demonstrations and workshops for years, hoping for the opportunity to use the information as a larger part of their individual businesses.

“As long as we use and manage biomass properly, this could be here for generations to come. It’s a great opportunity to be leaders in this area,” Graap said.

Support from the state

Graap isn’t alone in that view.

As demand for biomass increased, the Wisconsin Council on Forestry in 2003 created a task force to study the questions it raises. Gov. Jim Doyle’s initiative to have 10 percent of the state’s energy come from renewable sources by 2015 also spurred a review of the guidelines.

The panel established a set of biomass harvesting standards and procedures in 2004 and task force chairman Bill Horvath said the group quickly concluded that biomass is essential for Wisconsin’s energy industry.

“We have a resource here in Wisconsin that covers 16 million acres of land, more than half the state,” he said. “If you’re careful about how you use that, we can supply our energy needs.”

Environmental organizations in Wisconsin have hesitated to denounce the Rothschild project, though the Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin did request further assessment of its environmental effects by the Public Service Commission, the body that will decide whether to approve or deny We Energies’ plan.

“I don’t like to just decide I like or don’t like a particular technology then try to make the facts fit. You want to get all the information out there and really shine a light on each project,” said Katie Nekola, attorney for Clean Wisconsin.

Herb Tallitsch, a Rothschild resident and a former member of the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Association and the Audubon Society, said environmental organizations would actively oppose the plant if they believed the state should deny necessary permits.

“All these environment groups, they’d be right there, attacking it, from well before where we’re at now,” he said. “I know somebody said they were bought off, but the people in those groups wouldn’t stand for it. Those  organizations aren’t bought off.”

Steadfast opposition

Gerald Meidl, 59, lives about a block from the Domtar mill and isn’t swayed by the prospect of more jobs, even though he was laid off from Woods Equipment Co. earlier this year.

“When I see the signs that people are for jobs, I think that’s all they’re looking at,” he said. “Jobs are not the issue. It’s living with pollution.”

Meidl, like SOAR activist Hughes, worries that We Energies and Domtar aren’t being completely honest about emission levels.

“I can’t see how they can tell us they’ll be burning (more) wood and the pollution won’t get worse. That’s besides the diesel fumes,” he said, referring to opponents’ contentions that trucks hauling wood waste to the mill will create even more pollution.

Hughes said that, to him, particulate matter at the 99th percentile of federally approved levels is too close for comfort.

That conviction has led Hughes and other SOAR members to become passionate — and sometimes confrontational — in their opposition.

The dining room table in Hughes’ home is covered in biomass-related documents, dominated by a large binder containing the entire We Energies project application. He half jokingly says that his wife has been widowed by the biomass project.

“We’re not against industry; we’re not a group of environmental nuts,” he said.

But some SOAR members have demanded that questions — scores of “what if” questions — be answered  conclusively. The organization has queried the Department of Natural Resources so aggressively that the DNR asked SOAR to stop asking until it can do a comprehensive analysis.

SOAR members say their passion is justified. They believe Domtar, We Energies and even the PSC have such a vested interest in getting the plant approved and built that their figures and data can’t be trusted.

At this point, though, We Energies and Domtar think SOAR’s concerns have been addressed.

Meidl — who is not a member of SOAR — concedes that pollution levels from the mill have improved since he moved into his house in 1978, as the mill has complied with increasingly stringent environmental regulations.

“It used to be so bad you would walk outside and it would burn your nose and lungs,” he said.

He doesn’t want to see pollution levels increase at all.

“I’m for jobs, but I feel the health of my family is more important than jobs,” he said.

Pientkewic, who lives across the street from Rothschild Elementary School where two of her three children attend school, doesn’t think the biomass plant will be any more harmful than the existing industry in the area.

“Everybody is concerned about the potential cancer caused by the plant, but cancer is everywhere already. There is disease everywhere,” she said. “I don’t think the biomass plant will hurt us any more than what’s already here.”

Time of the essence

That leaves everyone — We Energies, Domtar, SOAR and potential job candidates — awaiting word from the Public Service Commission, a three-member board appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate.

The regulators announced on Aug. 27 that they would not produce an environmental impact statement demanded by several groups within the community. The D.C. Everest School District, members of SOAR, the Wisconsin chapter of the American Lung Association, Clean Wisconsin and the Sierra Club filed requests for the environmental impact statement and have continued to push the PSC to complete the more detailed analysis.

Village officials approved required zoning variances on Aug. 19, the lone local hurdle for the biomass plant. The major step remaining for We Energies and Domtar is obtaining an air permit from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. DNR officials don’t expect to release an initial review of the project sooner than November, followed by a minimum of 30 days for public comment.

We Energies says the ideal scenario for the company would be approval by the end of the year, to meet its goal of being operational by 2013. If the plant isn’t up and running by the end of that year, the company loses out on about $40 million in federal tax credits that make the project feasible.