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Wednesday, August 14, 2013
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Biomass Plan for Greenfield Cancelled

By Stephanie Kraft

As the dust settles from the battle over the Pioneer Renewable Energy biomass plant proposed for Greenfield, local opinion is still divided over the effect of the apparent demise of the project. Pioneer principal Matt Wolfe had planned a 47-megawatt electricity generating facility that would have burned about 600,000 tons of wood per year at a local industrial park. 

Because Greenfield residents overruled a Town Council decision to sell the facility wastewater for cooling, Wolfe was required to apply by July 16 for an amended permit based on a plan that would use dry cooling. He missed the deadline, so his original permit is now annulled.

Foes of the plant exulted as the deadline passed. “Now citizens of Greenfield can start looking into genuinely ‘clean’ and ‘green’ energy sources as well as conservation and efficiency,” said Chris Matera of ForestWatch. 

But Tim Blagg, editor of the local daily paper The Recorder, wrote that biomass offers property owners with small woodlots a chance to sell the wood that comes from thinning their forested acreage, “increasing their lot’s worth while providing some income,” and that if biomass is ruled out, “...we’re left with burning fossil fuel, which is, I believe, a crime against humanity.” 

Since the plant was first proposed in 2009, the state has changed the system governing the disbursement of renewable energy credits. Wolfe has told the local press that the new system makes the proposal for the Greenfield plant economically unviable. Last fall, developer Russell Biomass dropped a plan that had long been in the works for a biomass plant in the town of Russell, near Westfield, because of the change in the energy credit system.• 

 

Knapik Resignation Leaves GOP Further Marginalized

By Maureen Turner

Is there anyone lonelier than a Republican at the Massachusetts Statehouse?

And you can’t blame the state GOP for feeling even more desolate these days, after the recent resignation of state Sen. Michael Knapik. The Westfield Republican, who served 18 years in the Legislature, left to become executive director of university advancement at Westfield State, where his income will go up and his daily commute way down.

That leaves just three Republicans in the 40-member Senate—and leaves the already marginalized GOP that much more marginalized. After news broke of Knapik’s resignation, one of the remaining Senate Republicans, Robert Hedlund of Weyland, bemoaned the extra pressure it will put on his already crowded calendar, which sees him rushing from committee meeting to meeting as his party’s sole representative. “So now with Knapik gone, what am I going to have, 15 committee assignments?” Hedlund wondered in the Boston Globe.

Like most Massachusetts Republicans, Knapik veered toward the center; a recent legislative scorecard put together by Progressive Massachusetts, which looked at a number of key issues in the 2011-2012 session, showed him voting the “progressive” position 38 percent of the time. (By way of comparison, Springfield state Reps. Sean Curran and Angelo Puppolo, both Democrats, voted progressive 52 percent of the time.) Among Knapik’s progressive votes: he voted in support of improved early-childhood education, more government transparency, and consumer protections for homeowners facing foreclosure. More recently, he was the only Republican in the state Legislature to vote for both the state budget and a $500 million transportation bill that included an increase in the gasoline tax.

As the district prepares for a special election to fill Knapik’s seat, Republicans are not about to let their numbers drop even more without a fight. News of Knapik’s move had barely broken before state Rep. Don Humason, a fellow Westfield Republican, announced that he’ll run for the seat. Humason tends to cleave to the party line more closely than Knapik did; he voted against the Democratic-supported budget and transportation bill, for instance, and earned a mark of 31.5 percent on the Progressive Mass scorecard.

On the Democrat side, Easthampton Mayor Mike Tautznik, who’d already announced that he wouldn’t seek another term in City Hall after the end of his current term,  will run for the Senate seat. At deadline, a number of other prominent names in the district—which, in addition to Westfield and Easthampton, includes parts of Chicopee, Holyoke, Agawam and other communities—were circulating as potential candidates as well. The special election will be Nov. 5, the same day as the general election.• 

 

Absentee Ballot Fraud

A former East Longmeadow selectman has pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a voter fraud scheme he is alleged to have carried out by using absentee ballots. 

Hampden County District Attorney Mark Mastroianni charged that Enrico “Jack” Villamaino and his wife, Courtney Llewellyn—his girlfriend when, according to prosecutors, he falsified the ballots in 2012—changed the party designation on 280 East Longmeadow voters’ registration forms from “Democrat” to “unenrolled,” then put the names on absentee ballots that Villamaino, a Republican, used to vote for himself in a primary for state representative from the 2nd Hampden District. His opponent, Marie Angelides, nevertheless garnered 88 percent of the vote, roundly defeating Villamaino, then a selectman in East Longmeadow. 

Villamaino pleaded guilty to several charges, including forgery, perjury, interfering with an election official and conspiracy to violate absentee ballot laws. He was sentenced last week to four months in prison.• —SK 

 

Hampden County Food Stamp Program Shows Early Success

Hampden County has the lowest median household income in Massachusetts, with 55,000 households receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits—making it a perfect place for a program designed to help low-income people eat more healthfully.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Incentives Pilot program offered SNAP recipients an extra incentive when they used their benefits to buy fruits and vegetables: for every $1 they spent on produce, they received an additional 30 cents in benefits. The program, which ran from late 2011 through 2012, offered the incentives to 7,500 households in Hampden County.

A recently released interim report from the USDA shows that the program achieved a modest but important success: adults who received the incentive consumed one-fifth of a cup more fruits and vegetables than SNAP recipients who didn’t receive the additional benefit. According to the USDA, “an ongoing investment of less than 15 cents per person per day may result in a 25 percent increase in fruit and vegetable consumption among adults.”

“Although healthy foods aren’t necessarily more expensive, many low income people face time and resource challenges when it comes to putting healthy food on the table that can make less healthy options seem more appealing,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release. “The results of the Healthy Incentives Pilot demonstrate the clear impact that promoting nutritious food choices can have on improving the healthfulness of SNAP purchases.”

The report covered just the first half of the pilot program period. A final report to come will offer more detailed data and analysis.

SNAP has been under considerable political fire this year, as Republicans in Congress have pushed for dramatic cuts to the program, which serves about 47 million Americans. U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts’ 2nd Congressional District, has been a leader in the campaign to protect the program.• —MT

 

Academy at Swift River Closing

The Academy at Swift River, a private boarding school for teens who were troubled but not violent or in conflict with the law, will close at the end of the summer, after 16 years in operation. The school, located on 636 acres in Cummington and offering courses for grades nine through 12, had a student population that grew from a little over 20 in the beginning to 55 to 65. Tuition was $4,000 a month, and the difficulty for families trying to meet that cost has been given as a reason for the closing.

The Academy had connections to the movement that prescribed rugged wilderness experiences—more difficult than the typical Outward Bound adventure—for kids with adjustment problems. In its early years, the school was warned by the Massachusetts Office of Child Care Services that some of its ways of dealing with youngsters, which included sleep deprivation during long therapeutic sessions and work as punishment for infractions, bordered on abusive (“Tough love may be a little too tough for some students at the exclusive Swift River Academy,” May 21, 1998, www.valleyadvocate.com, archives). Reviews from parents and students were mixed, but some said the school helped restore emotional equilibrium and academic motivation. A high percentage of its graduates went on to college.

The school was operated by California-based Aspen Educational Group, and employed 50 people. There is no information yet about what will be done with the property.•  —SK

 

Medical Marijuana Rules Protested by Advocates 

As medical marijuana inches closer toward becoming a reality in Massachusetts, supporters of the program are fighting against regulations they say are unduly strict.

Earlier this month, patients who use marijuana for medical purposes and their supporters rallied at the Statehouse in protest against rules governing home growing. Under the medical marijuana law passed last fall by voters, users who cannot afford to buy the drug at a dispensary, or who cannot access a dispensary because of physical hardship or lack of transportation, can grow small amounts of pot at home. Regulations drawn up by the DPH also allow the patient to designate a caregiver to grow his or her marijuana, but say that caregiver can grow for one patient only.

The DPH rule is an attempt to head off illegal marijuana-growing operations. But medical marijuana advocates say it’s overly restrictive and will prevent patients from getting needed treatment. “This unworkable requirement was designed out of fear of ‘diversion,’ but it has cut many patients off from any possible access to the cannabis they need—after they’ve typically paid $200 for the examination necessary for them to be certified as medical marijuana patients,” said a press release from MassCann, the state chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, or NORML. The organization described the regulation as “another demonstration of why full legalization of marijuana for adult use is ultimately the best way to clear away needless obstacles to medical use.”

Meanwhile, DPH is now accepting applications from nonprofit entities interested in running medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, and is winning praise for how quickly it’s moving toward getting the clinics in place. “In some other states the process has taken years, so the fact that DPH has started accepting applications just over a month after regulations went into effect demonstrates a commitment within the department to meeting patient needs,” Matthew J. Allen, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, said in a release.

The law allows up to 35 dispensaries around the state, with at least one but no more than five in any county. The DPH can increase the maximum number of dispensaries in the future if it determines a need.•  —MT

 

UMass Prof Finds Deep Savings With Medicare for All

Expanding the Medicare program to cover all Americans would save the country a whopping $592 billion in one year, according to a new study by Gerald Friedman, a UMass Amherst economics professor.

Friedman’s report looked at the “Medicare for All” bill filed by U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), which proposes a single-payer model of healthcare similar to that offered in Canada. “In 2014, the savings would be enough to cover all 44 million uninsured and upgrade benefits for everyone else,” Friedman wrote. “No other plan can achieve this magnitude of savings on health care.”

The bulk of the savings—$476 billion—would come from the elimination of waste in the current private insurance system, Friedman found. The remaining $116 billion in savings would come from reductions in pharmaceutical costs. That money, he continued, could instead go to “expanded coverage, improved benefits, enhanced reimbursement of providers serving indigent patients, and the elimination of co-payments and deductibles in 2014,” as well as retraining programs for workers and other costs associated with the elimination of the for-profit insurance model. 

“Health care financing in the U.S. is regressive, weighing heaviest on the poor, the working class, and the sick,” Friedman wrote. The Medicare for All model would “establish a system for future cost control using proven-effective methods such as negotiated fees, global budgets, and capital planning” and would save $1.8 billion over the coming decade, “making comprehensive health benefits sustainable for future generations.”Friedman’s report is available at www.pnhp.org.

Conyers’ Medicare for All bill is co-sponsored by 48 members of Congress, including Massachusetts Reps. Jim McGovern and Michael Capuano and Vermont Rep. Peter Welch, all Democrats.• —MT

 

Let the Students Grow the Food

Three of UMass’ dining halls have permaculture gardens, where food is grown by students to enhance the meals (“Permaculture Goes Public,” April 23, 2013). Hampshire College also uses food grown on campus in its menus, and now plans to double the amount of it—from 10 to 20 percent—by next year and continue to increase it in years to come. The goal is to freshen up the taste of what’s served while promoting sustainability.

Hampshire, founded in the early 1970s, has long had a farm—in the beginning, a research farm. In the 1990s it developed into a place for faculty and students to grow food for themselves, or buy farm shares. Besides vegetables, the farm is home to chickens, pigs and cows, and animal products such as eggs will be part of the new culinary regime. Plans include expanding the farm, which is largely tended by students, and canning crops that grow in spring and summer for use during the winter. Hampshire also sources milk and produce from other farms in the area.

Across the country, more than 100 colleges and universities now have campus farms or gardens. The movement is partly fueled by a desire to reclaim campus menus from third-party food services with close relationships to corporate agriculture; as William Wootton, former president of Sterling College in Vermont, wrote in the Chronicle of  Higher Education in March, the large food service companies “have little financial or managerial incentive to begin working extensively with local and regional providers, and individual farms and farmers, to keep their client kitchens supplied year-round.”• —SK

 

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