The University of Montana released the final environmental assessment for its proposed biomass boiler two weeks ago, but school officials have failed to clear up some of the big questions still hanging over the controversial project.
The final EA omitted, glaringly, an updated financial pro forma, the document that estimates the project's costs, including fuel and operations. The pro forma still dates back to April. Between then and now, the university issued a "request for proposal" seeking bids from timber companies to supply woody biomass. Not a single timber company responded, suggesting that UM's projected cost per bone-dry ton of fuel—$40—is too low.
Bob Duringer, UM's vice president for administration and finance, blames the lack of bids on timber companies being "put off by the bureaucracy of the state of Montana's purchasing rules." He tells the Indy that McKinstry, the engineering company UM hired for the project, approached local suppliers who provided assurances that $40 is doable. He declined to say which timber companies were in on those "mano-a-mano" discussions.
Loren Rose, of Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake, doubts that timber companies can supply "bone-dry" material at all. "If it was $40 a ton, I'd say that's real easy, but when the pro forma says bone-dry, I would question whether it truly is going to be bone-dry, and if it is, how does it get dried? Because there's no dryer in the state that I'm aware of."
In any case, Duringer says that since the EA isn't a financial document, UM didn't need to include a pro forma at all; it was included as a "courtesy." Estimates of natural gas and operating costs are in flux, too. Still, Duringer is sticking to the boiler's projected price tag of $16 million. It might even be less, he says.
What's most relevant to the average Missoulian, though, is the biomass boiler's emissions. The EA terms all of the boiler's impacts as "minor," except for one—air quality, a "moderate" impact. The increase in emissions isn't projected to exceed air quality standards, though they will amount to the emissions produced by roughly 560 pellet stoves, according to the Missoula City-County Health Department.
We're all for UM reducing its carbon footprint, and it'd be great to use a local fuel source that keeps loggers in the woods—but if our air is going to be murkier, we expect UM to be more transparent.