FORT TICONDEROGA, NY -- Dick Brigham can't say for sure what causes the strange brown honey his bees produce every few years, but he suspects it's due to airborne contaminants. The Shrewsbury beekeeper, who has made his living in the Champlain Valley for 40 years, says he's seen "atrocious things" coming out of the smokestacks at the International Paper mill across the lake in Fort Ticonderoga. Now, he worries what the economic, environmental and health impacts would be on his neighbors, his bees and himself if the mill burns scrap tires for fuel.
Leslie Goodrich of Shoreham doesn't know which source of air pollution in the Champlain Valley worsens her daughter Abigail's respiratory problems, but she suspects the IP mill plays a major part. The 18-year-old has a long list of health issues -- a heart ailment, diabetes, asthma, a transplanted kidney and a suppressed immune system, among others -- all of which are complicated by fine particulate smoke. Goodrich says it's the kind of pollution that IP would produce if it's allowed to burn tires without a pollution-control device known as an electrostatic precipitator.
Eugene Fox of Middlebury can't say if International Paper, his employer, will close the mill if it isn't granted a permit to burn tires. But he insists no harm would come to plants, animals or humans if IP burns tire-derived fuel to save on its energy costs. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) should grant IP its permit to help keep the mill in business, Fox says, and shouldn't listen to "the emotional pleas of a vocal minority."
Three Vermonters, three points of view. They were among the 450 people who filled the Ticonderoga Armory for a November 9 public hearing on IP's permit request. Some 80 people in all, including Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, offered verbal testimony that day; hundreds of others submitted written comments. The DEC will continue accepting public input until December 9, before issuing its final decision and passing the matter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for consideration.
How does the DEC, the agency that would ultimately issue the burn permit, make sense of all these various points of view? Do some public comments count more than others? Are scientific facts more important than subjective or aesthetic concerns? And, does the DEC weigh the number of comments received on each particular issue?
David Winchell is spokesperson for the Region 5 DEC office in Ray Brook, New York. He explains that the comments received by the DEC are read by staff in order to identify individual issues of concern. Once all the issues have been identified, the DEC will look at each one and decide whether the draft permit needs to be modified.
Winchell adds that the DEC does keep track of how many people raise each point, though he can't explain how, or if, that number will affect the final outcome.
Subjective and aesthetic concerns will have limited impact on the final decision. "We're going to note those things, but we can only make sure the permit applies to regulations and laws that are in place right now," Winchell says. "Otherwise, we open ourselves up to litigation." In the end, he says, "Technical decisions are made by technical staff."
Regardless of the outcome, all public comments will be compiled in a public document that will include responses to each type of comment. The DEC then has three options: to grant IP its permit as is; to modify the permit to address some of the new concerns brought up during the hearings; or to determine that more information is necessary. The DEC is under no timetable to make its decision.
"There are two things we're trying to get out of this permit," Winchell says. "One is protection of human health and the environment, and secondly, to ensure the information is collected that we need to make a determination if IP chooses to pursue a long-term use of tire-derived fuel."
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