2012-12-19 / Local & State

Pa. Wood-burning Boilers A Threat To Health

By Kevin Begos


PITTSBURGH (AP) – A state program intended to promote renewable energy may instead be releasing high levels of pollutants, according to a report released Wednesday.

The report, funded by the Heinz Endowment, says more than $70 million in state and federal grants and loans for renewable energy have largely gone to commercial and institutional biomass burners in Pennsylvania, which burn different types of wood products and employ minimal emissions controls.

“Biomass is definitely really promoted as clean and green, even though that's not really true,” said Mary Booth, the director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, which produced the report for Heinz. Booth said small biomass burners emit far more pollution than oil and gas burners.

Booth said that even though many people think wood burns cleaner than coal or other fossil fuels, that's not necessarily the case. She said that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has regulations for larger wood-burning boilers, but that smaller ones aren't covered.

The report found that biomass boilers used in Pennsylvania's “Fuels for Schools” program emit more pollution than the oil and gas boilers they replace.

According to the World Health Organization, biomass smoke “contains thousands of health-damaging substances” that can contribute to respiratory disease, heart disease, cancers and other illnesses. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also noted that evidence suggests that “ exposure to wood smoke poses a risk to human health at environmentally relevant concentrations.”

But Pennsylvania officials said the criticisms of state biomass programs are off base.

“While we have not yet fully reviewed this report, the burning of biomass is tightly regulated in Pennsylvania,” Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Kevin Sunday said in an email. “When these facilities are permitted, DEP determines the best available technology to be installed.”

But Booth said that Pennsylvania's regulations also allow the small biomass burners at schools, even though the American Lung Association has said it “strongly opposes the combustion of wood at schools and institutions” since pollution from biomass is “a significant threat to human health.”

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