By ALEXANDRA JAFFE and BRIANA ENGLISH
The atmosphere at Ford Chapel on Wednesday night remained tense throughout the panel discussion on the plant that will turn tires into energy proposed for construction near Meadville.
The factory, proposed last summer and currently still in development stages, has become a contentious issue for a community split between an urgent need for jobs and concern for the lush local environment.
The tires-to-energy plant, as it’s called locally, was proposed by Crawford Renewable Energy as a job-creating opportunity to provide the community with clean, green energy. According to the CRE website, building the plant alone will create 250 union jobs in the area, with about 60 full-time jobs created when the plant is in operation. The website claims the plant will create enough electricity to power 75,000 homes in the area.
However, there is concern over the environmental and health impacts of such a site. The plant would use a process different from that used at coal-burning plants that the CRE’s website claims would eliminate the possibility of smoke or soot and would lessen the amount of air pollution created by other sites. But Wednesday’s panelists brought scientific information to the public that contradicts many of CRE’s claims.
“There’s not a whole lot out there, which is one of the problems,” explained Dr. Sherrie Mason, a professor of chemistry and the coordinator of environmental science program at SUNY Fredonia and one of Wednesday’s panelists. Because there are few tire-burning energy plants, there’s a dearth of scientific information on their health and environmental impacts.
However, Moore cited research done in Spain that found burning tires releases a high amount of a cancer-causing pollutant called “polyaromatic hydrocarbons.”
“They are really flat, and as a result of that they can really slide very easily into DNA and cause genetic mutations,” she explained during a phone interview.
But Dr. Conrad Volz, director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities and the Environmental Health Risk Assessment Certification Program at the University of Pittsburgh and also a panelist on Wednesday, said that the problem with the tire burning operation may not be air pollution.
“It’s a much smaller plant than any coal burning plant, and it does use a circulating fluidized bed technique, which is a very good technique that lowers air emissions,” he explained in a phone interview. He also added that the risks of the plant producing air pollution that would be harmful to the health of local citizens is “infinitesimally low.”
“We do not see this as a high-polluting operation,” he said, “but that’s air pollution.”
Volz, contrary to Mason, expressed concerns over the potential toxicity of the ash produced by the plant, and the likelihood of this ash polluting and killing off the local aquatic populations.
“The people who make their living from fishing the lakes and streams in the area may see some [loss of earnings] over time,” Volz said. “It is entirely possible that they may see some diminuation of their earnings.”
Volz added that these concerns could be addressed by the reassurance that the plant’s waste would be properly disposed of, but that the plant’s developers had not made their disposal plans public.
Because the panel didn’t include a representative from CRE, it had been deemed biased by some, including Greg Rubino, of CRE, although they were given the option to send a representative.
Despite the lack of a CRE representative, many community members chose to attend and were able to question the plan and voice concerns.
With an estimated 7.4 million in health damage per year in any of the areas where wind transports waste material, remarks were made about the challenge facing Meadville–to decide whether the risks outweigh the need for jobs.
Because the tires aren’t a true renewable resource and uses of the ash byproducts, such as salt for snow can cause food and water contamination, the community must also consider the environmental cost. With 60 new jobs being created, and the potential of the plant shutting down as similar plants have in the past, this decision is one that is not easily made.
“Those who don’t need jobs don’t really want this but the union members want the plant to go through,” said Collette Walsh, ‘13, a student who attended the panel. “I’ve never been in a discussion that was so heated like that. Everyone was divided.”
The voices of both sides of the community continued to escalate as each contingent struggled to be heard, although the panel was convened for informational purposes only.
Moderator and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette science reporter David Templeton viewed the panel as successful in its efforts to be informative.
“I would guarantee you that a lot of people in the audience heard this information for the first time,” he said. “After hearing all the positives and all the benefits to the community, and all the jobs that supporters and the company itself had stated, I’m sure that some of this information came as a surprise, and maybe little more of an eye-opening type of surprise to many.”
President of Students for Environmental Action Paula Frisch, ‘11, said that although she is personally opposed to the plant, she sees the need for more dialogue on the issue.
“We’re [SEA] not supportive of the plant, but we also understand how complex it is and what the sacrifices on both sides would be,” she said. “So to just be opposed 100 percent doesn’t satisfy the issue in my mind.”
Wednesday night’s panel may not have satisfied the issue in the minds of any of those in attendance, but it offered another viewpoint to the ongoing debate.