By Laura Shea, M.D.
As a physician studying the recent environmental health research, I am
deeply concerned over the air pollution that biomass incinerators in our
region will create.
There is a perception by many that biomass energy is clean. The reality
is that whether combusting directly or engaged in gasification, biomass
resources do generate air emissions. In fact, many existing biomass
incinerators produce higher amounts of two known pollutants than coal
burning plants: nitrogen oxide and particulate matter air pollution, which
are documented as having the broadest-reaching health impact of the
pollutants regulated in our air. Because of the light weight of these
gases and particles, they can travel long distances and affect air quality
far away from the emission source.
Nitrogen oxides are a mixture of gases that react with oxygen to cause
ozone air pollution (smog). Ozone causes asthma in children, aggravates
lung conditions such chronic bronchitis or asthma and even leads to
Particulate matter air pollution is also worrisome. Research released last
month showed several alarming statistics about the number of people dying
or becoming ill due to exposure to this pollutant. This research summary
stated that there is no safe lower limit for particulate matter air
pollution. This is because they have found that higher death and disease
rates are present even at lower levels of this pollutant.
Yet another concern is with a newer identified form of air pollution
called ultrafine particles. These particles are being found to be even
more toxic to humans than other pollutants because they get deeper into
the body. While the EPA is funding research for this dangerous new
pollutant, it is not yet regulated or monitored.
I am also concerned about the number of biomass incinerators either
proposed or operating in Northern Michigan and the cumulative effect they
will have on air pollution, particularly ozone levels which is caused by
pollutants from several sources miles away from each other. Nearly all of
the monitored areas in Michigan will be over the legal limit for a new
lower ozone standard that will be put forth by the EPA soon, based on the
new scientific research. Unfortunately for those of us living in Northern
Michigan, the EPA does not require air quality monitoring in regions with
populations of less than 100,000 people so we will not know what effect
this potential plant and others in the region will have on the quality of
the air we breathe. Because of these issues, the EPA is now recommending
that communities become proactive regarding the prevention of air
Is installing a biomass incinerator in Traverse City proactive when there
are other clean renewable options available? How is it even compatible
with the other energy-smart development in the downtown Traverse City
Several local physicians and I have co-signed a letter to city
commissioners recommending against a biomass incinerator until truly clean
energy options such as wind/ solar/ hydroelectric/methane recycling are
maximized and the full health impact of biomass pollution is analyzed.
So some tough questions remain for the TCLP board and our city leaders:
Have we really maximized the clean renewable energy solutions here in
Northern Michigan prior to moving toward a dirtier solution such as
biomass? (The answer is undeniably No.)
Why are we only investing in a small amount of wind power when site
engineers say they can produce more?
Why is the existing hydroelectric infrastructure not being considered as
an option for generating base load energy needs?
Why has the commercial development of methane landfill gas recycling not
been optimized and utilized?
Why are we not considering technologies such as the pump storage
facility operating in the City of Ludington to store the energy
produced from intermittent methods such as wind so it can then provide
base load needs?
Why have aggressive conservation programs not been rolled out as part of
our total energy plan?
Have the newer low-cost, mass-produced solar options been fully explored?
Have energy grid feed-in programs been considered or meaningful
subsidization programs implemented?
Could a natural gas contract (a much cleaner source than coal or
biomass) be undertaken as a supplemental bridging measure until a truly
clean renewable energy portfolio is developed based upon recent clean
Citizens have asked these questions and have not received acceptable
answers. In fact, the answers that are provided seem to boil down to one
of cost: biomass incineration is the cheapest per kilowatt-hour of the
I would propose that we also consider the not-so-hidden costs of polluting
our air, such as the conservative estimate of $500 million of health care
costs that our nation spends annually that could be saved by meeting
federal clean air standards; or the individual cost of a controller asthma
inhaler which runs on the order of $200 per month. And even more
importantly, if our children develop asthma or our loved ones die a few
years sooner, what are the price tags for those outcomes?
Installing a biomass incinerator in Traverse City is not only cavalier,
but is perhaps unnecessarily jeopardizing the health of our citizens,
given the recent scientific evidence of the health effects of air
pollution. I encourage city residents to contact the City Commissioners
and urge them to vote against the TCLP capital budget proposal that will
be put before them early next month, which includes moving forward with a
biomass incinerator. This is the only way at this point to avoid spending
additional resources exploring a biomass solution while leaving these
other questions unanswered.
TCLP must shift its focus, go back to the drawing board, and develop a
cleaner, more innovative energy plan to meet the needs of our community.
I believe that striving to keep our air clean and our citizens healthy
should be the highest priority when developing an energy strategy for the
decades to come.
Laura Shea, MD, is a family practice physician from Traverse City.
See: www.epa.gov, and