On May 12, over 100 people crowded into a room at the North Tahoe Conference Center for an awareness meeting about the proposed Kings Beach biomass plant. The gathering was organized by residents who live next to the project site, and emotions were high. When attendees heard that Placer County Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery was possibly at a meeting next door, approximately 20 people stormed the room hoping to make their opposition to the facility known. Although Montgomery was not at that meeting, a week later, the Lake Tahoe Anti-Biomass Plant Coalition was formed, along with the Facebook page ‘No Biomass Plant in the Lake Tahoe Basin,’ which had 547 fans at the beginning of June.

Placer County announced last July that it was starting to study the environmental impacts of a Lake Tahoe Basin Biomass Energy Facility, which would turn forest fuels removed from the Basin into electrical power. So why is this issue flaring up now, 10 months later?

The answer lies with a grassroots movement that has turned up the heat in recent months after becoming fearful that the Kings Beach biomass plant was gaining steam. Community activists say a biomass facility does not belong in a residential area and could endanger the health and safety of not only Kings Beach but also the rest of the Basin’s population. Along with an organization created specifically to fight a biomass plant in the Basin, anti-biomass leaders have put the issue at the forefront of locals’ concerns and applied pressure to Placer County to look at alternative sites. Placer and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, however, say the uproar is premature since they are in the middle of environmental studies, and no decision has been made to go forward with the project yet.


Why Kings Beach?

Placer County started thinking about a Tahoe biomass plant in earnest after the 2007 Angora Fire in South Lake, which burned 3,100 acres and destroyed more than 300 homes and businesses. The U.S. Forest Service said it would be doing more thinning in the Basin to prevent another major wildfire, yet the agency does not have the budget to remove the debris. This meant more open burning, which in turn meant more air pollution. This had Placer County worried.

‘How can we craft solutions to all of these issues?’ said Brett Storey, Placer County biomass program manager. ‘What can we do to offset open burning? That’s how the biomass program was born.’

A biomass plant seemed to solve two problems: help reduce the chances of a catastrophic wildfire and decrease open burning by removing material from the forest and burning it in a facility under controlled conditions that create fewer emissions. It would also have the added benefit of generating renewable energy, since the forest fuel would be burned to create electricity.

Originally, Placer County looked at three sites on the North Shore: Cabin Creek, where the dump is located; Burton Creek in Tahoe City; and Kings Beach. The Cabin Creek location, which has no direct lines for sewer and water and only limited power, and would require a new road to accommodate increased traffic, proved too costly. Cabin Creek is also part of the Mountain Counties Air Basin, which in 2006 was in non-attainment for air quality, precluding the construction of a biomass facility. The Burton Creek site would have required a change in the community plan.

This left Kings Beach, which Placer County first considered because Sierra Pacific Power, now Liberty Energy, owned property there, which it offered to the county for free in exchange for becoming partners in a biomass facility. With Liberty Energy’s substation and transformer adjacent to the site, it would be easier to tie into the grid then the other locations as well. The site is also one of few in the Placer County portion of the Tahoe Basin that is zoned for industrial use.

The project, which includes a 2-megawatt, 6,400 square foot structure that would house the power generating and emissions control equipment, plus a 5,500 square foot storage building, already has funding secured from $3 million in grants from the Department of Energy.

Why not Cabin Creek?

But opponents of the project say Kings Beach, with its densely packed population, is the worst place for a biomass plant, not to mention the fact that the proposed location is less than 1,000 feet from Kings Beach Elementary and the Boys & Girls Club.

‘You don’t put down a big incinerator in the middle of a forest, near a school and condos and residences,’ said Roger Patching, who last fall started Friends of Lake Tahoe, a 501(c)(4) organization, to run a campaign against a biomass plant in Tahoe.

Patching and anti-biomass leaders, like Mike and Dawn Baffone, who live 50 feet from the proposed site, are concerned that the biomass plant will emit pollution that could be dangerous to breathe and also pose a major fire danger.

‘Just the idea of the potential of leaks and things going wrong, why would anyone run the risk of putting it in an area near a school and residents?’ Patching said.

Critics of the project say they are not against a biomass plant per se, only against one in the Basin. Patching worries that Tahoe’s natural inversions could lock in any particulates released from the plant, polluting the Basin’s pristine air. He and others also question the logic of trucking forest material from the West Shore out of the Basin and to Cabin Creek for winter storage, then back into the Basin to be burned at a biomass plant. That is why opponents are urging Placer County to focus on Cabin Creek, which is outside the Tahoe Basin and in an industrial area with no homes, as the favored location for a biomass plant.

‘The logical place to put it is Cabin Creek,’ Mike Baffone said. ‘We want to sway them [Placer County Board of Supervisors] to have Cabin Creek as the preferred site.’

To that end, the Lake Tahoe Anti-Biomass Plant Coalition was formed after a second community meeting on May 19 with Mike as the president. The group started the anti-biomass Facebook page and organized three protests, including two in Kings Beach in May and another in Incline Village on June 11.

‘This is not really just a Kings Beach issue; it’s a Tahoe Basin issue,’ Mike Baffone said. ‘We are making the public aware and letting them know what they can do to stop this.’

Friends of Lake Tahoe also has a petition against the biomass plant that people can sign on their website. And another Kings Beach resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, started the Facebook group, ‘Love Tahoe, No Biomass in Kings Beach,’ which has 73 members so far.

Not a done deal

Opponents have had some success. Since the public outcry began, Cabin Creek has been added to the environmental impact statement as an alternative.

‘There was no out-of-Basin alternative at first,’ said Jeff Cowen, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency community liaison. ‘We more than heard that concern.’

But both Placer County and the TRPA — which has yet to take a position on the biomass plant — say opponents may be jumping the gun since the project is still in the environmental review phase.

 ‘We haven’t yet decided to go forward with the project; this is an investigation phase,’ Placer County’s Storey said. ‘We are waiting for the scientific facts to come forward.’

Storey says it’s even hasty to talk about potential hazards and pollution since the type of biomass technology hasn’t been selected. Placer County and the TRPA, which are doing a joint environmental review, are looking at two possibilities — steam and gasification, the latter being cleaner but more costly.

‘We want to pick the technology that best serves the community and the county,’ Storey said.

Storey hopes the environmental documents will be ready for public review by July. That will be only the beginning of a lengthy approval process, which includes many opportunities for public comment at meetings held by municipal advisory councils, the Placer County Planning Commission, and the TRPA.

‘If the project still makes sense, only then will we propose it to the Placer County Board of Supervisors,’ Storey said.

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