Hot air rises

The Montana Board of Regents unanimously approved the University of Montana’s plans for a $16 million biomass boiler last Friday, but dissension lingers among UM staffers.

Mike Burke, chief engineer at the campus’s heating plant, wrote a letter to the Board of Regents alleging that the proposal’s financial particulars were “rosy” because skewed fuel costs were used to make it pencil out. Ian Lange, a geology professor, argues that the plant would degrade Missoula’s air quality. “This thing is going to increase the emissions over what burning natural gas does—and cost us money,” Lange says. “That to me doesn’t make sense. How could a rational person want to pay more money and pollute the air at the same time?”

Ben Schmidt, air quality specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department, says the biomass plant would indeed increase emissions, but, based on current projections, not to the point of exceeding air quality standards. “Anytime you’re using wood as a fuel—which is far more complex chemically than just using natural gas—you’re going to have more emissions,” Schmidt says. His office calculates that the biomass boiler would equate to 560 pellet stoves, a “shaky” comparison, he says, given the many variables at play.

The WildWest Institute’s Matthew Koehler says investing $16 million is a dubious economic move. “We have no [new] College of Technology, and we’re increasing tuition by 10 percent, and we’re not [giving raises to] our teachers and staff, and we’re not insulating the buildings,” he laments.

More than that, Koehler says, UM administrators have been less than transparent. He and Lange conducted an open record search that yielded an email from Bob Duringer, UM’s vice president for administration and finance, who, in response to a question about financial assumptions, wrote, “I don’t think we owe them any more than what we’ve posted.” The search also turned up an internal document that questions the biomass plant’s economic feasibility, but it doesn’t show its author.

Duringer stands by the project. “People who are running around with their hands in the air just need to calm down a little bit and read the literature,” he says. The plant will pay for itself, he contends. “It’s between emotion and logic here.”

The Missoula City-County Health Department expects to make a preliminary determination on UM’s application for a permit for the biomass plant next week. The deadline for comments on UM’s draft environmental assessment is June 20.

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