INDUSTRY | Opinion: Atlantic Power – Burning questions about railway ties

From the roof of the Atlantic Power Corporation energy plant in Williams Lake, Terry Shannon, the company's director of environmental health and safety, right, offers a tour of the facility to Jim Hilton, Sandy Hilton, and Caterina Geuer. Photo: Sage Birchwater

From the roof of the Atlantic Power Corporation energy plant in Williams Lake, Terry Shannon, the company’s director of environmental health and safety, right, offers a tour of the facility to Jim Hilton, Sandy Hilton, and Caterina Geuer. Photo: Sage Birchwater

 

By Sage Birchwater  –

Controversy is brewing over Atlantic Power Corporation’s bid to increase the volume of creosote-laden railway ties it is allowed to burn in its biomass-fired energy plant in Williams Lake.

When the facility began operating in 1993 it signed a 25-year energy purchase agreement (EPA) with BC Hydro to provide 66 Megawatts of electricity to the energy grid. It was also granted permission by the Ministry of Environment (MOE) to burn up to five per cent of its fuel mix as rail ties. Now with the EPA about to expire in 2018, the company is seeking a 10-year extension to that agreement. To ensure it has enough biofuel to feed its plant, Atlantic Power has applied to the MOE for a tenfold increase in the volume of rail ties it is allowed to burn.

That’s the rub for a growing number of people in Williams Lake.

There is a perception that if Williams Lake were to become a destination for burning old railway ties brought in from all over western Canada, the health of the community would be compromised. People are concerned that deadly toxins will accumulate in the environment despite efforts by Atlantic Power to keep contaminant levels below provincial government guidelines.

Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of physics states that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. If you bring 112,500 tonnes of toxic material or 1.6 million rail ties into the Williams Lake Valley every year, that’s exactly what you will have—112,500 tonnes of toxic material that the Williams Lake environment will have to absorb. The 10-year accumulation will be more than one million tonnes.

Many people are adamant that Williams Lake is not a suitable location to process that much toxic material. Besides the smoke emissions there is the toxicity of the ash created by burning creosote. The ash is being stockpiled precariously close to the edge of the Williams Lake River Valley that drains directly into the Fraser River.

Williams Lake is located in a bowl subject to frequent temperature inversions. For extended periods of time, cold air gets trapped in the valley bottom by layers of warmer air above, and this prevents adequate circulation and flushing of the airshed that is already 80 per cent saturated with smoke and particulate matter. Add toxic emissions like furans and dioxins to that mix, and health risks accelerate for the 20,000 people who live in the valley or work in Williams Lake.

Many residents feel it’s not worth the risk.

Atlantic Power promises to handle the toxic rail ties carefully. Shred them on site in an enclosed facility and burn them immediately. Temperatures will be extremely high at 1,600 degrees Kelvin, or 1,327 degrees Celsius, or more than 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Terry Shannon, Atlantic Power Corporation’s director of environmental health and safety, says most of the rail tie poisons will be burned up at that temperature.

“Two seconds at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and toxic substances are destroyed to their base elements,” he insists.

Atlantic Power did a three-day test burn in 2001 using 100 per cent rail ties, and Shannon says most of the pollutants were either destroyed by the high temperatures or removed by the plant’s environmental controls.

“The level of pollutants was well within the provincial standards,” he states. “Provincial standards are 100 parts per billion, and emissions during the test burn were only four parts per billion.”

But what he can’t answer are the cumulative concentrations that will grow in the environment and how they will impact people in the long run.

A little history of the Williams Lake energy plant might be useful.

In 1993 the power plant arrived like a knight in shining armour rescuing Williams Lake from a crippling case of air pollution. Many residents were suffering from respiratory illnesses, and fly ash from the beehive burners was everywhere.

The new energy plant consumed all the wood waste produced by half a dozen lumber manufacturing plants and the air quality improved overnight. Particulate emissions were reduced by 90 per cent.

In the beginning the energy plant got the mill waste for free because sawmills no longer had to dispose of it themselves. Then the corporate landscape shifted.

In 2004, Pinnacle Pellet plant started purchasing the sawdust and shavings from the sawmills, and the wood wastes took on economic value. Eventually the mills started charging for the bark and hog fuel.

“The 200 tonnes of biofuels we burn each day used to be free,” points out Williams Lake energy plant manager, Mark Blezard. “Now we pay money for it. Pinnacle Pellet took the shavings and sawdust from our fibre basket.”

The primary reason Atlantic Power Corporation is applying to increase the volume of railway ties it is allowed to burn, is the projected drop in the annual allowable cut (AAC) for the Williams Lake timber supply area. In the next five to nine years the AAC will be cut in half from three million cubic metres of fibre to 1.5 million. That means sawmill production will be cut in half, and there will be less wood waste to supply the energy plant.

Retired forester Jim Hilton is a member of the ad hoc group opposed to Atlantic Power burning railway ties. He feels there is a win-win solution to the energy plant’s fibre-supply woes so the company won’t have to burn any ties at all. But it will probably take political pressure to make it happen.

Hilton says vast amounts of waste wood have been left in the bush in the aftermath of the mountain pine beetle harvest. But Atlantic Power claims it can’t afford to pay the hauling and processing costs to bring this inferior wood fibre to its plant.

Hilton says the availability of railway ties is too enticing an opportunity for the energy company to turn down. Not only will the ties be delivered to the plant for free, but he believes railway companies will offer a tipping fee to dispose of them.

Hilton hopes the BC government will turn down Atlantic Power’s request to burn more railway ties and offer incentives to the company to produce power from the vast swaths of clean wood fibre left in the bush.

With the AAC cut in half, Hilton predicts that half the region’s direct 4,800 forest industry jobs will be lost. Also impacted will be 1,680 spinoff jobs connected to the forest industry.

But if Atlantic Power can be convinced to forego its application to burn railway ties and utilize clean residual material from the forest instead, Hilton believes 50 local jobs would be created hauling and processing the material that would be otherwise lost.

That’s the win-win solution supported by the ad hoc group opposed to burning railway ties in the Williams Lake Valley.

A public information meeting hosted by the group in February, 2016, at Thompson Rivers University drew 150 people from across the political spectrum. Interest is high and people are seeking answers.

Some people trust the government to protect our health and public interest, but as one former Ministry of Environment employee points out, theory doesn’t always work out in practise. She says human error, wearing out of equipment, and shareholder pressure to cut costs and maximize profit inevitably lead to failure.

Atlantic Power needs assurance for a secure fuel supply.

The citizens of Williams Lake need assurance their health and well-being won’t be sacrificed for corporate profits.

 

Sage Birchwater moved to the Cariboo-Chilcotin in 1973. He spends his time freelancing, authoring books, and with Caterina, hanging out with their dog and cat, gardening, and being part of the rich cultural life that is the Cariboo-Chilcotin Coast.

 

 

 

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