January 16, 2013BERLIN — After listening to testimony, viewing site plans and asking questions for an hour-and-a-half on Thursday morning, all nine members of the state Site Evaluation Committee (SEC) voted unanimously to amend Berlin Station's permit — a Certificate of Site and Facility — to build and operate a 75-megawatt biomass power plant on a section of the former Burgess pulp mill site.
Now named Burgess BioPower, Cate Street Capital's $275 million project has a 20-year purchase power agreement with Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH) to buy 100 percent of the electricity produced in the wood-burning plant.
The amended certificate will allow Babcock & Wilcox Construction Co., Inc. (BWCC), the contractor hired to engineer, procure, and construct (EPC) the entire facility, to reconfigure the wood yard by continuing to build a 450-foot-long A-frame overhead stack-out conveyer and an under-pile reclaim conveyor system.
Cate Street Capital's managing director of development Dammon Frecker explained that the new system is more highly automated than the original plan, reducing the need for some heavy diesel-operated mobile equipment that will cut down on noise, air-borne particulates, and dust. Wood chip pile configurations were also revised. Rather than three individual and roughly square-shaped piles the modified plan calls for one pile of similar shape plus one oval pile.
Frecker also testified that the impermeable or paved surface would be reduced by nearly 12,000 square feet, much in the area along the Androscoggin River that is subject to the state's Shoreland Water Quality Protection Act. The height of the wood-processing building will only be 45 feet tall, rather than 60 feet as originally planned.
"The proposed changes will minimize the project's overall impacts and improve the biomass facility's reliability and performance," Frecker concluded.
Former Crown Vantage forester Phil Bryce, formerly of Milan, who is the Interim Commissioner of the state Department of Resources and Development (DRED) and Director of the state Division of Parks and Recreation, pointed out that he is glad to learn that the engineers had worked to simplify the design and "get it right" because wood-handling facilities often become operational trouble spots.
A more automated system has not changed Cate Street's expectation that 40 on-site jobs will be created, however. The plan modifications will allow workers to be more effectively utilized.
Cate Street reports that the project on schedule and expected to be operational by the end of the year, most likely on Oct. 17, when the keys will be turned over to Cate Street. Commissioning — burning wood for limited amounts of time in order to test and tweak the system — will likely begin in June. A subsidiary of Delta Power Services, LLC, a Babcock & Wilcox company, holds a separate six-year $19 million-plus contract to provide operations and maintenance services (O&M) for the plant. The hiring process will soon begin.
Although the Certificate called for Berlin Station to pay for the design, development, and construction of a River Walk on the edge of the Androscoggin as recommended by a citizens' community benefits committee, the City later determined that the proposed project was flawed and impractical and should not be constructed. Once the City no longer backed the scenic amenity, it found that safety fencing would only be needed along the road.
The City also has found, based upon a review of the site during spring and summer conditions, that it would be impractical to fully implement the landscaping plan as it was initially conceived.
Berlin Station is now working with the City and the state
Bureau of Trails to modify the landscaping plan that originally called for two rows of trees so that it would better meet the interests of both parties.
Frecker testified that city officials decided that the River Walk had steep sections and would also dead end at a privately owned property at its north end.
Berlin Station agreed to pay the city up to $650,000 that it would have spent on constructing the walk and fencing.
Bryce said as an advocate for outdoor recreation he was "concerned and perplexed" as to how it came about that the now-perceived flaws in the River Walk design and route had not been picked up earlier. He was also not pleased to learn that the promised payment was apparently not dedicated to an alternative outdoor recreation amenity that would help residents and tourists stay fit.
Director Elizabeth Muzzey of the state Division of Historical Resources said she shared his perplexity since the River Walk has previously been described as a major part of the community benefits package.
Public Utilities Commission chairman Amy Ignatius pointed out, "The city is in the driver's seat in this matter." She did not feel it was her place to second-guess City officials, including the City Council, although she very much hoped these monies would be used to enhance the city.
Both PUC Commissioners Michael Harrington and Robert "Bob" Scott agreed with her conclusion. "It is not our place to substitute our judgment for that of the City," Harrington said firmly.