Recusals put air council in a bind over scrubber

Seven of the 11-member Air Quality Council will recuse themselves on what is arguably one of the biggest decisions they will make this year: whether to uphold their decision to permit Public Service of New Hampshire to spend up to a half-billion dollars to build mercury scrubbers on the Merrimack Station coal-fired plant.

“The beauty of New Hampshire is that it’s a small state,” said Ryan Bielagus, who stepped down after being contacted by NHBR for an article that appeared April 15 on “The problem with New Hampshire is that it’s a small state.”

That’s the view echoed by PSNH’s Martin Murray, who said that the mass recusal shows that the “process is working.”

But Catherine Corkery, a spokesperson for the New Hampshire Sierra Club, had a different view. “This is ridiculous,” she said – and that was when only five members had announced their plans to recuse themselves on the vote. “I can’t understand how their expertise would be satisfied if nearly half the board is missing.”

Five members recused themselves at a meeting on April 13 after the Sierra Club identified three with ties to Public Service of New Hampshire: Chairman Robert Duval, an engineer who contracted for the utility, William Smagula, PSNH’s director of generation, and David Collins, who lobbied for the utility.

Two – Linda Garrish Thomas, who has a membership in the Sierra Club, and Georgia Murray, a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club – stepped down because both organizations oppose the permit.

The following day, Bielagus, a principal of Grubb and Ellis/Coldstream Real Estate Advisors, told NHBR that he would be stepping down because PSNH was a recent client of his firm.

The seventh to bow out was Debra I. Hale, a lobbyist for National Grid, which generates hydroelectric power in the state. When first contacted by NHBR, she laughed off the Sierra Club’s contention that she was too closely tied to the industry to be deciding the scrubber permit.

She pointed out that National Grid didn’t take a position on the scrubbers and did not compete with PSNH. But she later told the Concord Monitor that she would recuse herself after seeing the story about the conflicts.

That leaves a minority of four members to decide the issue – an unprecedented situation, according to Anthony Blenkinsop, the board’s attorney. He said he has never seen more than one board member step down because of a conflict of interest.

The Air Resources Council has no numerical quorum requirement, he said – a majority of those who are left, which is now three members, can make a decision. Theoretically, a majority of two could decide whether the project moves forward.

Raymond Donald, who represents municipal government and is a building inspector for East Kingston, will oversee the proceedings. The remaining three members are Robert Hickey, a Rochester physician, Terry Callum, president of the New Hampshire Snowmobile Association, and Steven Walker, chief executive of New England Wood Pellet in Jaffrey. Their next meeting is May 11.

Contentious battle

Installation of the mercury scrubbers – one of the most contentious issues engulfing the utility this year – was once a matter of consensus. Everybody agreed that lowering mercury emission was a good thing, and when lawmakers mandated it several years ago, the main question was how many years to give the utility to implement it.

But all that changed last year when it learned that the cost of the project would increase to more than $400 million. And the cost to keep the plant may – and probably will – go up even more as new environmental regulations against carbon-based pollution tighten up.

PSNH, however, has argued it still needs the plant to provide a reliable source of energy, and hundreds of jobs related to the installation are at stake in the midst of a recession.

PSNH isn’t alone, as mainstream business groups, labor and even some environmentalists have supported it.

But opponents – including Stonyfield Farm chief executive Gary Hirshberg and the Sierra Club – have argued that instead of ratepayers putting so much money into installing the scrubbers – which could shortly be obsolete – wouldn’t it be better to use the money for cleaner sources of energy and conservation?

What has transpired is nothing short of a war waged on all fronts: the media, the Legislature, the courts and various regulatory agencies, with scrubber opponents thus far losing most of the battles.

On April 8, for instance, the New Hampshire Senate voted 22-1 and crushed a motion to study alternatives to a scrubber. The latest skirmish at the Air Quality Council is just one more battle.

The Department of Environmental Services has approved the permits needed to install the scrubbers, but opponents are appealing that decision to the council.