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Humboldt activists question environmental impact of Scotia biomass plant

Humboldt County Sawmill
The Humboldt County Sawmill provides wood waste that's burned for the Scotia biomass energy plant.

Last week, the Humboldt Coalition for Clean Energy called on the Redwood Coast Energy Authority to abandon the Scotia biomass power plant.

The activist group's discussion with the energy authority highlighted the plant's complexities and what should be considered renewable energy in the Northern California county.

The Scotia biomass power plant uses wood waste from the Humboldt County Sawmill to generate electricity for many residents on the Lost Coast. A division of the timber products operator, Humboldt Redwood Company, runs the energy plant.

Dr. Wendy Ring, with the Humboldt Coalition for Clean Energy, argued that the Scotia plant's use of wood waste from the neighboring Humboldt sawmill releases hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year.

At the meeting, the coalition lobbied for the energy authority to divest its interest in the Scotia plant. Since last year, Ring has directly criticized the biomass plant for its impact on air quality.

But Redwood Coast Energy Authority Executive Director Matthew Marshall says the issues are not clear cut.

“It's a challenging conversation to have,” he said. “Do the pros outweigh the cons, or do the cons outweigh the pros? Neither person has to be wrong, but it can be a challenge when you have to make a decision of where we land on trying to balance those things.”

Marshall said it’s essential to consider the bigger picture of creating power from a waste product, not just the air pollution it creates.

The meeting followed the filing of a notice from the nonprofit Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) with the North Coast Unified Air Quality Management District. The district is the state's air quality regulatory agency in the region. The environmental group claims that the Humboldt County Sawmill violated federal air quality regulations by submitting an invalid renewal operating application.

The air quality district’s regulations require a renewal application to be submitted “no later than six months before the expiration date of the permit.” The regulations also state that permit renewal applications must be “timely and complete” for a facility to continue to operate while the district considers its renewal application.

According to EPIC, Humboldt County Sawmill's renewal application was both incomplete and filed too late.

The Redwood Coast Energy Authority's Matthew Marshall says cutting ties with the plant would be costly . He estimates that abolishing the contract would cost roughly $50 million, including a penalty from the state and paying for another power source.

Meanwhile, the environmental groups are challenging the legality of the plant operations following the permit expiration.

Other biomass plants in nearby Fairhaven and Blue Lake have closed their doors in recent years. The Scotia mill is the last commercial biomass mill still operational in Humboldt County.

Kelby McIntosh is a writer and radio producer based in Arcata, California. He is a member of the California Local News Fellowship at UC Berkeley and reports regularly for JPR from Humboldt County.