KALISPELL - Debate over the University of Montana's proposed biomass heating plant took center stage at the Board of Regents' meeting here Thursday as campus leaders sought approval for the $16 million project and worked to dispel opposition swirling around the controversial venture.
Regent Stephen Barrett said the board was recently inundated with letters and emails from members of the public and university employees who argue the sustainable energy project is cost inefficient and will jeopardize air quality in the Missoula Valley.
Of particular concern, Barrett said, were a pair of letters submitted by university employees who run the current campus heating plant, and who are critical of the proposed system's cost feasibility, competition for fuel, and the additional manpower it would require.
UM heating supervisor Mike Burke submitted one letter voicing his concerns earlier this week, while five stationary engineers sent a similar letter to regents Wednesday, on the eve the board was scheduled to take up the issue for approval.
"This was a lengthy, rather articulate letter from the gentleman who runs the current system, and who stepped up and gave this issue some real thought," Barrett said. "How do we grapple with that letter? That is a person who is in the trenches and he says we don't know where we are going."
UM President Royce Engstrom said the renewable energy project is complex, but assured the board that UM's leaders have studied the issue in detail over the past 18 months. He said the project would reduce the university's carbon footprint by 20 percent, minimizing the release of carbon dioxide by using renewable resources such as beetle-killed trees and forest hog fuel to heat the campus.
"We recognize that this is a particularly complex item and that a good deal of understanding is involved before you can make a decision," Engstrom said. "But we at the University of Montana have a responsibility and an obligation to work toward sustainability in an environmental and economic sense, and this project is the single biggest thing we can do to move forward in that direction."
Bob Duringer, vice president for administration and finance at UM, addressed the board and directed questions to representatives of McKinstry, the consulting firm contracted by UM to act as the project's general contractor, and Nexterra, the company that manufactures the gasification systems.
Duringer said the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation determined the system would use only a fraction of the woody biomass available in a 50-mile radius around campus, and some of the fuel would be harvested from the Lubrecht Experimental Forest.
The proposed plant would convert biomass into synthetic gas, which is cleaner burning than natural gas, he said.
"This project is viable," Duringer said. "That is not to say it is without risk."
UM released the draft environmental assessment for the project this week, fulfilling a requirement of the Montana Environmental Policy Act. UM is conducting the EA in conjunction with the Helena-based environmental consulting firm Bison Engineering, and is currently accepting public comment.
Additionally, UM has submitted an air quality permit to the Missoula City-County Health Department; a preliminary determination on that permit is scheduled to be released for public comment June 2.
Chairman Clayton Christian said the board was inclined to move forward with the proposal, adding that most environmental concerns raised will be addressed by the upcoming regulatory steps.
"How this project will impact air quality is the biggest issue that has caused us all pause, and I think the (Department of Environmental Quality) will do its job and if those concerns fail to be answered that will bring the project to a halt," Christian said.
John Snively, a Missoula resident who has been one of the most vocal critics of the proposed project, said his biggest concern is that the biomass plant would degrade Missoula's air quality, which is already poor.
"We are being told that adding a biomass wood burner clearly will produce more emissions than the current gas boiler," Snively said. "In our valley, where there tends to be stagnant air, this raises great concern for me personally."
The Board of Regents will vote on the issue when they resume the two-day meeting Friday.
Also expected to take priority Friday is the issue of tuition increases and better compensation for staff and faculty in the Montana university system.
Board members touched on the issue of compensation Friday, with the majority agreeing that higher salaries are critical to attracting and retaining quality staff and maintaining the state's caliber of higher education.
"The Legislature turned its back on the employees of this state and I don't think we should do the same," said Barrett, a regent from Bozeman.
"If we don't take this opportunity and responsibility to invest in our higher education system by keeping and attracting the right people, then Montana will forever be at the low end of the economic spectrum," Engstrom said. "And we just cannot allow that."
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.