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School district weighs in on Rothschild biomass plant (UPDATE)

By Paul Snyder

A school district in Rothschild is giving more than 2,600 reasons for demanding the state pinpoint exactly how much pollution a proposed biomass plant in the area will produce.

“Our concern is to be careful about the safety of students and staff,” said Tom Owens, assistant superintendent of the D.C. Everest Area School District.

More than 2,600 students are enrolled in three schools within two miles of the proposed We Energies power plant. Owens said the district does not oppose the plant but wants to be included in the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin’s project review so school officials can get immediate information about plant emissions.

“We don’t know that there is a problem,” he said, “but the way to get answers is by being involved and able to participate.”

The district is seeking intervener status in the PSC’s review of the Rothschild plant. Interveners typically get immediate access to project-related documents and can request information and reviews on particular issues.

PSC spokeswoman Teresa Weidemann-Smith said the district’s request still needs approval by an administrative law judge. She said she does not know when that decision will be made.

We Energies is not concerned by the request, said spokesman Brian Manthey. The utility is standing behind the estimated $255 million project and is optimistic it will win PSC approval. If the district wants information on plant emissions, the utility already made public its projections, he said.

Construction of the plant will take place on the site of the Domtar Corp. paper mill, Manthey said, and will let the paper manufacturer retire four boilers on site. Construction of the new plant will mean one new boiler, but Manthey said the utility predicts a 30 percent reduction in emissions.

The existing site emits 644 tons of pollution each year, he said. After construction, Manthey said, the amount will fall to 457 tons.

Owens said he is aware of We Energies’ predictions, but the district wants to know how those figures were calculated and whether the PSC will conduct more investigations.

“We’ve got an elementary school about a half-mile away from the site,” he said. “It doesn’t have air conditioning, so windows are open for ventilation. Emission levels are important.”

Groups opposed to the project already have questioned We Energies’ predicted emissions. A community group known as Saving Our Air Resource, which is also an intervener in the PSC review, filed a document claiming emissions would be two to three times higher than they are now.

Paul Schwantes, who filed the document on behalf of the group, did not return calls for comment.

The point of the district getting involved, Owens said, is to get a handle on the facts. He said he will not speculate on whether the district will support or oppose the project.

“We’re just trying to figure out what’s going on,” he said.

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