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Is it the end for the Avonmouth biomass plant?


On Wednesday November 5th, Bristol City councillors met at City Hall to decide whether or not to approve the planning application for an 11 MW biomass gasifier proposed at the Chittening Industrial Estate in Avonmouth.  After lengthy debate councillors voted to reject the plans on air quality grounds, with five voting against, two in favour, and one abstaining.

Bristol City Council planning officers were originally going to make the decision under delegated powers but after a surge of public objections and press coverage the decision was put to a planning committee to be decided in public. Over 100 public objections were submitted to the council in the space of two weeks as the planning application was previously unseen. Objections came from Avonmouth, Shirehampton and Lawrence Weston residents as well as from wider Bristol and the UK. Last Wednesday, over thirty people gathered outside City Hall before the planning meeting to protest against the plant holding banners and wearing dust masks.

The planning application was put forward by multinational infrastructure group, Balfour Beatty, together with Canadian energy company Nexterra. The plant would have been fuelled by burning 75,000 tonnes of woodchips per year supplied by adjoining wood processing plant Boomeco and would have produced enough electricity to power up to 15,000 homes per year.

Local residents and environmental campaign groups, Avon Coalition Against Big Biofuels and Biofuelwatch, had two material objections to the plant; sustainability of the development, and risk to air quality and health.

Mike Andrews spoke to the committee on behalf of the Avon Coalition Against Big Biofuels and discussed sustainability as part of his statement:

The gasifier would be extremely inefficient in energy conversion. From the planning documents and information in their Birmingham biomass gasifier proposal, it appears that the efficiency will only be twenty per cent. Eighty per cent of the wood burnt would be wasted. The efficiency levels proposed are so low that it would not even meet the definition of ‘energy recovery’ if it was a Municipal Solid Waste incinerator – it would have to be classed as mere ‘waste disposal’.

He went on to explain how the plant is also not compatible with the waste hierarchy principle, which is set out in national and local planning policy. This is because the gasifier plant planned to burn grade C waste wood which includes Grade A and B which is suitable for industrial use such as panel board manufacture.

Ian Robinson, a local Avonmouth resident spoke to the committee about the extremely poor air quality in Avonmouth to date and the huge impacts on public health and the NHS were the plant to go ahead. He reminded councillors of Boomeco’s extremely poor track record, with the fly infestation this summer and the large amounts of wood dust created which has blighted people’s health and quality of life for years.

Ian explained there is insufficient background data on the air quality in Avonmouth and surrounding areas to see the impacts of Boomeco’s operations and other industry because there is a distinct lack of air quality monitoring by the Environment Agency. He stated “Wood dust is a class 1 carcinogen” and “people will die because of this”.

Olly Mead (Lab, Horfield) shared his concerns about the plant and provided a splash of humour in the meeting stating:

“I was surprised to learn that eating bacon can cause cancer. The difference is you can choose to eat bacon but you can’t help but breath in dust.”

His remark was in response to Councillor Dr. Mark Wright (Lib Dem, Cabot) who attempted to downplay the concerns about exposure to the carcinogenic effects of wood dust by likening it to the carcinogenic effects of ‘eating bacon’.

Cllr Martin Fodor (Green, Redland) expressed his concerns about the sustainability of the fuel source for the plant and the credibility of the planning applicant’s claims that it would have no significant impact on air quality. Nexterra representatives were given the opportunity to think of ways of providing evidence from operational plants but came up with nothing as there is none in the UK.

It is expected that the application will go to appeal and campaigners and objectors understand that the council’s decision may be overturned by central government. The time delay however may be detrimental to the plant’s future as it requires substantial government financial backing to make it viable, and with the general election fast approaching this may not be possible to secure.

Jake Stock is a member of Avon Coalition Against Big Biofuels

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