Center for Biological Diversity files appeal over Tahoe/Truckee biomass project

Margaret Moran
File photo Processed wood chips like these are one example of biomass.

TRUCKEE, Calif. – A national environmental nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting nearly extinct species is appealing the latest approval in the proposed two-megawatt Cabin Creek Biomass Energy Facility process, officials confirmed Wednesday.

The Center for Biological Diversity submitted the appeal after the Placer County Planning Commission adopted a conditional use permit and certified the project’s final Environmental Impact Report on Dec. 20, said Brett Storey, Placer County project manager for the biomass facility, on Wednesday.

The appeal, sent out Dec. 27, questions the analysis of the EIR regarding potential greenhouse gas emission amounts and the facility’s potential ripple effect on area forests and forest management, said Kevin Bundy, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, on Wednesday.

The appeal also alleges the EIR does not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.

The Placer County Board of Supervisors will hear the appeal in either February or March, Storey said.

The project still needs two permit approvals from the Placer County Air Pollution Control District to operate and construct the proposed facility, Storey said Wednesday. Also, “fully flushed out” designs of the facility would need to be developed and then approved by county engineers.

If all goes smoothly at the appeal hearing and with the permits and designs, Storey said the facility proposed to be built at the Eastern Regional Landfill on Cabin Creek Road off Highway 89 between Tahoe City and Truckee could be operational as early as 2015.

According to Placer County, the facility aims to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, improve regional air quality and find beneficial uses for excess biomass, plant matter that can be converted into an energy source.

Walter Levings, natural resource staff with Tahoe National Forest, said the agency has “long been in support of utilization” of biomass.

“It’s an alternative to open burning, which you can only perform so many days,” Levings said. “Also, there is not as much air pollution (when using a biomass facility), which has positive health effects on local residents.”

The U.S. Forest Service, Calfire and Incline Village-based North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District perform prescribed fires or pile burns, which involve the controlled burning of collected materials by trained professionals under specific weather conditions to reduce the risk of wildfire.

“(The biomass facility) will reduce the pile burning we have to do, but it won’t eliminate it,” said Norb Szczurek, NLTFPD division chief, adding that the district’s coverage area has steep-sloped forest lands that makes it difficult to remove excess biomass. “… (Pile burning) is a very important (wildfire) management tool for us.”

Benefits of the proposed biomass facility, Szczurek said, include reducing the risk of “catastrophic wildfires” wildfire and being able to produce a byproduct from excess biomass.

“In general, we are in support of it,” Szczurek said.

According to Placer County, the facility would be supplied by woody biomass gathered within a 30-mile radius, and gasification technology would be used to convert the vegetation into fuel, ultimately generating electricity.

“It’s somewhat controversial (the facility), but it would certainly benefit our chipping program,” said Dave Zaski, public information officer with the North Tahoe Fire Protection District, based out of Tahoe City.

He said the district has run out of places to bring residents’ chipped branches, with the closure of the Loyalton biomass plant in August 2010.

“We have to leave the chips with the residents, and we’d rather not have to do that,” said Zaski, adding that the residential chipping program is an effort to create defensible space around people’s homes.

In 2012, NTFPD received more than 1,800 chipping requests from residents within its 31-square-mile coverage area on the North and West shores, he said.

In Incline, NLTFPD is also struggling with where to deposit chips, since the Northern Nevada Correctional Center’s biomass plant in Carson City closed in September 2010, said Szczurek, adding that the district has since been giving its chips to plant nurseries and neighboring ski resorts.

Paul Spencer, public safety and information officer with the Truckee Fire Protection District, said the district’s chipping program no longer exists since Aug. 31, 2012.

“It was funded through a grant (by Air Quality Control),” he said, a grant that since expired. “With the economic downturn, we don’t have enough monies floating around to fund the program on our own.”

Both Spencer and Zaski said their districts are “neutral” on the proposed biomass facility.

The project includes the construction of an 11,000-square-foot building that would house power-generating and emissions control equipment and a 1-acre fuel storage area, according to Placer County.

– Matthew Renda of The Union newspaper in Grass Valley contributed to this report.

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