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ACC chair refuses to put biomass on agenda

ARIZONA — Arizona Corporation Commission Chairman Bob Burns has refused to put the issue of a biomass mandate on the December agenda, despite an impassioned plea by Commissioner Lea Marquez Peterson. 

Courtesy photo/  

Arizona Corporation Commission

Burns told the Independent he sees no point in revisiting the issue until the Forest Service gets responses to its “Request for proposals (RFP)” for a million acres worth of thinning projects. The contractors won’t submit bids for the 20-year contracts until after the first of the year.

File photo  

Leah Marquez Peterson, Arizona Corporation Commission

Even then, Burns said he still doesn’t think ratepayers should have to subsidize forest thinning efforts through an ACC directive to the power companies to buy slightly more expensive power generated by burning biomass.

Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services  

The Arizona Corporation Commission includes Andy Tobin, from left, Tom Forese, Doug Little, Boyd Dunn and Bob Burns.

“If we mandate to burn biomass, then what does that do to the possibility of other people responding to the RFP? We need to keep our powder dry and let the RFP run its course and see if we get some viable options,” said Burns.

Photo courtesy of azcc.gov 

Bob Burns, Arizona Corporation Commission

Experts have said only burning biomass to generate power offers an economical way in the short term to deal with millions of tons of wood slash from thinning projects. Burns said maybe one of the contractors will come up with another idea.

However, when pressed, Burns said he’s not sure he would support a mandate even if it offered the only way to make a thinning project viable.

“My responsibility is to the ratepayers. I have a constitutional responsibility to make sure their costs are as low as possible,” he said.

He suggested perhaps someone else – like the state or the Forest Service – could pick up the extra cost of generating electricity from burning biomass. Studies suggest burning biomass already costs less than burning coal, but a little more than solar, wind or natural gas. The cost of natural gas has plummeted due to a big increase in supply from fracking operations.

None of those costs include the economic benefits of reducing catastrophic fires and protecting watersheds.

4FRI thinning efforts have been largely stalled for the past decade by the knotty economic problem of the biomass – the slash, branches, saplings and downed trees that make up about half the material in need of removal – perhaps 30 to 60 tons of wood per acre.

Arizona Public Service did a study suggesting it would cost $70 to $100 million to convert a coal-burning unit of the Cholla Power plant to biomass. The plant could generate 60 megawatts of electricity annually, enough to absorb the biomass from roughly 50,000 acres of thinning projects every year. However, the average homeowner would pay $1 to $3 a month more than if APS generated the same amount of power from a natural gas plant or building a new solar generating facility.

The commission rejected a biomass mandate on a 3-2 vote, dashing the hopes of forest restoration advocates.

Peterson argued that the commission should take into account the huge additional savings to ratepayers of thinning the forest, which would dramatically reduce the chance a crown fire will destroy communities like Payson and Show Low or the power company transmission lines that run through the forest. Moreover, Valley ratepayers would suffer serious consequences if a crown fire caused subsequent erosion that would fill reservoirs with mud.

“There is a very real connection between power companies and forest fires,” Peterson wrote in her request to reconsider the biomass decision.

She noted that fires started by downed power lines have caused billions of dollars of damage and killed scores of people in California. The resulting lawsuits bankrupted Pacific Gas and Electric, which now cuts off power to millions of people when high winds and dry conditions make it possible a downed power line will start another catastrophic fire. In 2017 and 2018, California wildfires inflicted $26 billion in damages.

Those fires also put 70 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Burning the biomass in power plants would remove some 95 percent of the pollutants, benefiting human health and moderating climate change as well.

Peterson cited the Independent series that pointed out that 66 percent of the power lines the commission regulates pass through areas at high risk of a catastrophic wildfire.

She said a mandate from the commission would create a market for biomass crucial to the bids on the latest million acres worth of thinning projects.

Regional forester Cal Joyner has pointed to the “biomass bottleneck” as the key to thinning projects. A mandate would “dramatically accelerate the pace of forest restoration,” he said.

Peterson concluded, “never before has this state had such an opportunity to address this issue. I hope we will not let it slip through our fingers.”

Burns remained unmoved by the appeal, saying he won’t put the issue back on the agenda until after the Forest Service RFP process plays out.

“I’m not ready to support it until someone picks up” the extra cost of generating electricity through burning biomass. “The bottom line is that I’m doing what I can to work with the requests of the commissioners and make sure their requests are honored. But because of the RFP, we need to let that run its course first.”

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

Andy Staten/The Independent  

Round Valley sophomore Jameson Stover jumps for joy as he and his teammates celebrate their 34-28 win against Phoenix Christian in last Friday’s Division 2A football championship in Scottsdale. With the victory, the Elks clinched the school’s first football state title in 39 years.

Christmas lights vandalized, festival cancelled

SPRINGERVILLE — The Annual Christmas Light Festival at the Springerville park on Mohave street, which was scheduled to begin Friday, Dec. 6, has been cancelled for the year due to vandalism.

Amber Shepard/The Independent  

Broken lights still litter the sidewalk and some areas near the ramada in the park on Mohave in Springerville. The annual Christmas Light Festival was cancelled as a result of the extensive vandalism.

Yesterday, when volunteers went to add more lights to the display, it was found that the lines had been pulled down from the trees and gazebo and the glass bulbs had been smashed on the concrete. So many strings of the lights had been damaged that there was nothing left to salvage for the display. The Springerville-Eagar Chamber of Commerce and volunteers had spent weeks preparing the display and redoing the display would not be possible in time for this year’s holiday season.

Amber Shepard  

An empty ramada at the park in Springerville where Christmas lights were smashed by vandals.

“We would have to take them all down,” Verda La Rou, a volunteer for the Chamber of Commerce, said of the lights. “And there’s just not enough time. It was hundreds of dollars’ worth of lights.”

The acts of vandalism in the park are currently being investigated by the Springerville Police Department. Springerville Police Chief Mike Nuttall could not provide additional details at this time but stated that there will be a reward offered for anyone who provides information that leads to an arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the vandalism.

The yearly Christmas Light parade scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 7, as well as the other holiday events planned for Springerville and Eagar will continue on schedule. 

“They can’t steal Christmas that easy around here,” La Rou said.

Amber Shepard is an local journalist covering municipal governments and other Apache County topics.

Que será, será - HSWM Shelter Manager thinks so

LAKESIDE — If you are old enough to remember everybody’s girl next door, Doris Day, you probably remember her signature song, “Que será, será” – whatever will be will be. That’s exactly what Humane Society of the Humane Society of the White Mountain’s Shelter Manager Debbie Torbet is saying with regard to an adoption story that looked somewhat dismal, but after nine months turned out how it turned out — with a happy ending for Maggie and Bonez and Tammy (last name withheld at HSWM’S request).

Barbara Bruce / Courtesy photo  

Falling on hard times, Tammy (last name withheld at HSWM’s request) left her dogs in someone else’s care while she left the Mountain to improve her circumstances; her dogs wound up at HSWM’s shelter, turned in as abandoned. Now, nine months later, after having to check month to month to see if they were still at the shelter,Tammy, a veteran, has adopted her Maggie and Bonez.

Tammy by profession is a respiratory therapist and is also a veteran. Somehow she fell down on her luck and the only option she felt was available was to head to Phoenix to look for work. Being the owner of two dogs, she found someone who said they would look after them for her until she returned. She paid them what she could and though the living conditions were not optimal – they were going to be kept in a small chicken pen – it would have to do until she got things straightened out.

Three months after Tammy had gone, she learned the lady had taken her dogs to a shelter; she didn’t know which one. According to Torbet, Tammy called 10 shelters before finding them at HSWM. She spoke with Debbie and described the dogs, Maggie, a Lhasa Apso mix, and Bonez, a Rottweiler. She learned they had been turned in as abandoned animals. But she was sure it was them.

The next day Tammy called Torbet back and told her everything she could about them – what they liked and all their little quirks so the shelter could make them feel more comfortable and at ease. She told her that Maggie was a rescue from the street, five years old and she has had her three years. She said Bonez was a shelter rescue from Payson is about a year or year and a half old. Tammy explained what had occurred and told Torbet her plan was to come and get them in a month.

When the month was up, Tammy was still not in a position to retrieve her dogs. Torbet had to inform her that she could no longer hold them and they would have to go up for adoption.

Tammy asked that they be advertised as a pair because, Maggie, who came from a shelter in Payson, came with high anxiety issues and those were abated when she bonded with Bonez. In fact, Torbet said Tammy told her that Maggie is a little bossy and actually uses Bonez as her service dog. HSWM had already seen this display of anxiety by Maggie, and for that reason, did list them as an adoption duo.

Each month Tammy would text or call Debbie to check the status of the dogs. No doubt she felt relief with each reply that they had not yet been adopted. She had finally started working and was staying in a transition home. She needed to stay there until she was able to get enough money to get a place to live and pay pet deposits.

It had been nearly nine months and the dogs were still at HSWM. Finally, it looked like Tammy had a break – she rented a place and paid her deposits. She filled out her adoption papers and HSWM did the preliminary check with Tammy’s landlord and everything was in order. She was coming to the Mountain on Nov. 22 to be reunited with her dogs, but the threat of weather happened and she had to reschedule, and then reschedule again. Though third time is usually charm, Tammy had to cancel due to a medical emergency. Things did not look too promising, but Torbet said they were all valid reasons. And finally, Tuesday, Dec. 3, Tammy was en route to get her dogs.

While she was traveling, the devoted staff at HSWM were bathing and brushing Maggie and Bonez and as a final touch, adorned them with Christmas scarves – they were all ready to go back to their real forever home.

Paperwork in order and the $150 adoption fee paid, because that is the rule, the dogs were brought out but it was not like you might expect – they were likely a bit confused. When Torbet suggested they go into the adoption room to be alone, ten minutes in, everything changed. They knew her. It was dog in the lap, hugs and kisses, a re-uniting of family. Tammy cried and then she cried some more – tears of joy.

It was out to the exercise yard, which had become their favorite yard, and then getting a drink and heartfelt bye-byes from the staff who had come to love Maggie and Bonez — and they were on their way to Phoenix with their faithful owner who never gave up on getting them back.

Torbet said that Tammy was so grateful and told them she didn’t believe any other shelter would have done for her what they did.

Torbet said she had originally thought she knew Tammy but when she arrived, she realized she did not. “But, I really believed her story,” said Torbet. “It was not really her fault, and I wanted them to go back to their original family. She knew how they were and if someone was to have adopted them, they might have brought them back because of the anxiety.”

HSWM Director Deana Pace said, “ We see miracles happen here quite often; dog people know that.”

Was this a miracle? Maybe; maybe not. But it does appear that Torbet’s belief in “whatever will be, will be,” is applicable here. But, really all that really matters is that the story has a happy ending.

Reach the reporter at bbruce@wmicentral.com