Consider all factors

To the Editor:

Last Thursday, the Zilkha Center for Environmental Studies sponsored a four-man panel discussion addressing the proposed Beaver Wood biomass wood-burning facility. I am concerned about the presentation of the panel and the potential conflicts of interest among the panelists and the Zilkha Center.
In what was billed as an effort to present the facts impartially, the College ran the meeting in a highly controlled way that did not allow for debate or the exchange of ideas. Many of the most pressing questions our community has were either watered down or not addressed. Instead of allowing audience members to voice opinions and ask questions, we were instructed to write queries on slips of paper. It seemed to me the questions were then vetted.

The two members of the faculty who shared their considerable knowledge on the water, wind and forests in our area repeatedly claimed they did not have enough information about biomass to be “for” or “against” the proposed facility. Why then did the Zilkha Center not bring in someone who has expertise in biomass who does not work for or have connections to the biomass industry?

While some “cons” were implied in Professor Henry Art’s presentation and a handout was provided from the Concerned Citizens of Pownal, I question why the panel was titled “The Pros and Cons of Burning Biomass for Electricity” as no “cons” were voiced. Could this be because the panel’s sponsor, the Zilkha Center, was established with substantial funds given by the family who currently runs Zilkha Biomass Energy?

If there is a conflict of interest, it seems that the College is obliged to disclose it. The Zilkha family is a large donor to Williams, and the College cannot be faulted for appreciating and encouraging their generosity. On the other hand, we need to know if the Center’s persistent “neutral” or “pro” stance on this issue is tied to a powerful biomass donor.

The Williams and Pownal communities are collecting information from independent sources to learn if the proposed plant is in our best interests both economically and ecologically. Unfortunately, Beaver Wood Energy is pressing to rush through the needed permits and is seeking to break ground next month in order to qualify for $80 million in taxpayer dollars via federal funding. The early start will also help Beaver Wood Energy avoid the more stringent emission standards that go into effect in early 2011.

I wholeheartedly agree with President Falk’s judicious letter to the Selectmen of Pownal (Oct. 20) wherein he urged the agencies that grant permits to take the full time needed to perform due diligence before green-lighting the Beaver Wood project. I now respectfully ask him and the College administration to forthrightly explain whether other factors are guiding responses to the projected biomass facility.

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