The Hopkinton ‘canaries’ were right

Don’t you just hate it when someone is justified in saying “I told you so?”

Last year, a group of Hopkinton citizens called REACH (Residents Environmental Action Committee for Health) tried to warn us. While some dismissed them as mere NIMBYs, they insisted that Hopkinton was a canary in a coal mine. If BioEnergy’s plan was not nipped in the toxic bud all of New Hampshire would soon face the imposition of incineration of construction and demolition (C&D) debris. Boy were they ever right.

Citizens and supportive legislators, as diverse as Representatives Chris Hamm (D) and Richard “Stretch” Kennedy (very R) joined together to sponsor House Bill 1421, which would have protected the residential neighborhood from the effects of emissions like lead, arsenic and mercury. Twenty-seven people spoke in favor the bill, only four against. Naturally it was defeated.

The REACH folks warned us that, given the money to be made ($80 to $100 a ton tipping fee, plus valuable pollution credits for out-of-state utilities), all of New Hampshire was a target. They tried to warn us that similar old wood-burning facilities were in their sights: Alexandria, Ashland, Barnstead, Bethlehem, Bridgewater, Raymond, Springfield, Tamworth and Whitefield. The bill’s defeat was seen as a green light.

Pine State Power saw it as one, announcing plans to convert the old Timco sawmill combustor in Barnstead into the very green-sounding “Barnstead Power and Light Biomass Generation Unit,” relying on the incineration of construction and demolition debris. And in the southwest corner of New Hampshire (Tom Eaton’s senate district), in Hinsdale, just across the river from downtown Brattleboro, Vt., the same company seeks to open a C&D-burning facility to handle about 600 tons per day.

Attorney Scott Flood figures that will mean more than 40 18-wheelers a day in already seriously congested Brattleboro. I suppose it could be seen as Hinsdale’s revenge for all these years of living downwind of the nearby Vernon, Vt., nuclear plant.

We’re not talking about a minor nuisance here. Construction debris contains dozens of toxins. The Hopkinton facility would be allowed to emit 64 tons of poisons, including 2.67 tons of lead as well as 31 pounds of mercury. Most everyone knows the hazards of lead: severe neurological and developmental disorders especially in children. And while the 31 pounds of mercury sounds minor in comparison, consider that only two grams, one-fourteenth of an ounce, can cause a 20-acre lake to be polluted enough to render all fish caught unsafe to eat.

Even if the proposed facilities were said to be state-of-the art, that’s still not good enough. Scrubbers are of limited effectiveness. Of 87 toxins approved for emission by the state Department of Environmental Services, only a handful of these can be monitored. According to Flood, about 80 percent of volatile organics and particulates cannot be controlled. Would you want your family to live there?

Last year, legislators blew it. There are about 12 bills now filed in the state Legislature to protect us from becoming the construction and demolition incinerator capital of New England, starting with HB 57, with Rep. Chris Hamm again as the lead sponsor. Sen. Sylvia Larsen has a similar bill in, which as yet has no legislative number.

Any sought-after growth in our economy is predicated on a steadfast maintenance of New Hampshire’s pro-environment tradition. The Granite State must continue to be an attractive place to live and work. The costs of this short-term solution are unacceptably high.

Canaries in coal mines perform heroic service, but only if the humans they protect pay attention. It’s late, but not too late.

Burt Cohen, a former state senator, now hosts a Portsmouth radio talk show.

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