Last week, a citizen revolt sprang up in “our fair city,” a small town on the backwaters of Puget Sound, nestled against the forested foothills of the Olympic Mountains. Our town’s existence is based on wood products, an industry vital to the core of our civilization, but one with consequences. Having endured one and a quarter centuries of the realities of wood production, the local population of one of the least healthy counties in Washington State finally has cried, “Enough.”
The controversy arose over a proposed biomass-fueled powerplant to be constructed on the outskirts of town, using “Bubbling Fluidized Bed” (BFB) technology. This sounded neat and green and high-tech–at first. Scientists concerned with health issues have stipulated that the current air quality regulations, established in the early days of the 40-year-old Evironmental Protection Agency, are not adequate to address health risks from microbe-sized particulates (<2.5um). This range of particulate sizes is produced in higher percentage of volume from BFBs than from the technologies in use when the regulations were written. And, there are other issues of environmental impact on the community, in terms of noise and traffic, as well as dubious economic value due to tax incentives, relatively small permanent staff, and out-of-state sale of the “product.”
Citizens have a right to question the impacts of the introduction into their community of a potentially-harmful technology that will have an overall negative effect on the community. Though not required by law, because of the size and scope of the project, it is imperative to provide some level of independent impact study before such a project is approved. Throughout the history of the industrial age, communities have not seen a lasting benefit from industrial operations: across the planet, industries have built facilities, an activity that temporarily burdens the locale with a large workforce while providing few permanent jobs. The plant operations produce large amounts of waste, which contaminate the local environment for decades after the profits have been taken and the plants close, further burdening the population with the cost of cleanup. And, ineffective or poorly-enforced regulations permit the construction and operation of profit-making ventures that damage the health of the community and impose financial burdens on the infrastructure far in excess of any tax revenue realized, while creating few permanent jobs for the current residents.
It was no wonder, then, that hundreds of citizens turned out to raise these issues at a recent joint workshop held by the city, county, and public utility district commissions. But, the commissions sidestepped the issues neatly: the proposed plant was nowhere mentioned in the meeting agenda, and the workshop chairperson announced that it would not be discussed. Nevertheless, the BFB powerplant was obviously the elephant in the room. Each and every item on the agenda, save one, addressed issues that bear directly on the infrastructure necessary to implement the project: expansion of water and sewer services to the industrial district (euphemistically referred to as the “Urban Growth Area”) and traffic modifications to the roadways that provide a route for the supply trucks to the proposed plant site. Although it is clear that these civic improvements are needed to sustain the economic viability of the area, promoting a facility of dubious benefit and possible harm to the community without community input is not a responsible approach: the county and city commissions need to consider their constituency’s concerns.
As a closing shot, briefly acknowledging the elephant, one of the commissioners insulted the assembled audience by comparing a natural-gas/wood-pellet boiler at a state facility in the county to the proposed BFB wood-waste boiler. That’s like comparing the impact of your hybrid sedan with that of a logging truck. If our elected officials don’t themselves know the difference, it is time to educate them, or replace them, before more damage is done.
Citizens are increasingly aware of the long-term effects of our industrial society: there have been too many spectacular examples in the last half-century to welcome any industry with open arms because it promises a few jobs: Love Canal, the Exxon Valdez, the currently developing crisis at the Deepwater Horizon site; lesser-known disasters like the asbestos tragedy in Libby, Montana; and, the cronic on-going tragedy of health impacts and mine explosions in the coal industry. Concerned citizens cannot be dismissed as “certified kooks” because they have unanswered questions to what they perceive as real threats. In cases where citizens were successful in obtaining a fair, unbiased environmental impact assessment, such as the recently-completed Biosafety Level 4 facility at the National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories, in the middle of a small town in Montana, the outcome was positive. The facility was not only ultimately built, after a year’s delay, but modifications were made to the entire 30-acre research campus to reduce noise and emissions, and to improve traffic flow to the facility. Also, impacts on the community infrastructure were reduced by augmenting the staff with counterparts to community police, fire, and medical support. The community opposition was defused through an extensive outreach and education effort to answer legitimate questions–and, in turn, incorporate those issues into planning and design–as well as to dispel unfounded rumors about the dangers to the public and ultimate purpose of the facility.
To completely understand the wood-waste powerplant controversy, one must consider the ecosystem, and how this proposed facility fits into the local ecology. Wood is a complex living thing. In the natural cycle of the forest, it grows over decades and centuries, absorbing carbon from the soil and atmosphere, and returning oxygen to sustain the animal life around it. When it dies, it decomposes over many decades and centuries, returning most of that carbon to the soil, while the nitrogen and sulfur-based compounds that make up the functional cellular structure of all living things becomes food for the microbes, insects, and new trees around it. Occasionally, when a forest gets overcrowded, or too many trees in one location are killed by disease, the forest ignites in summer lightning storms, dispersing its chemical legacy far and wide, so the forest heals and is renewed.
But, when man uses the forest as a source of fiber for building materials, this cycle is disrupted. Instead of a 200 to 500 year cycle of growth and decay, the growing cycle is limited to the lifespan of the foresters, 60-70 years. The decay cycle is shortened to days or minutes. This creates a carbon imbalance between the atmosphere and biomass. It also releases the nitrogen and sulfur compounds all at once, in toxic quantities. A fractional percentage of the original tree comes out of this process in the form of fiber: lumber or paper. The effects of this accelerated embalming process have been devastating to the local ecology.
Within a few decades of the arrival of the industrial civilization to this region, the rich shellfish beds in the sheltered bays of the lower Sound were gone, over-harvested and then poisoned by the effluent of the tree-embalming process. The food source of local peoples for thousands of years was destroyed in a single generation, and some especially-prized species driven to extinction. Over the succeeding century, some of the more damaging practices have been eliminated, either by attrition as the opportunists exhaust the resource, or by regulation. Unfortunately, regulation has been largely designed to benefit commerce, by limiting short-term risk while maximizing short-term profits.
Concerned citizens in all parts of this country are starting to look at long-term solutions that benefit the ecology, of which they are also a part. These solutions must include policies and practices which most closely follow the natural life cycles of the planet while still permitting commercial exploitation of resources. Those who lived here before us knew how to do this: the indigenous peoples used the forest and the waterways with no more impact than the occasional storm, flood, or forest fire. In the drier inland forests of Idaho and Montana, when the indigenous peoples were forced to abandon their stewardship of the land, what had been taken by the settlers to be “natural” forest quickly reverted to overgrown conditions, resulting, in a generation, in the most devastating forest fire to date, the 1910 Bitterroot fire, that destroyed towns and affected air quality and crop production from Idaho to the Dakotas.
The regulatory response to the 1910 fire was to create the National Forest Service, whose goal was not to preserve the ecology, but to maximize forest production by suppressing fires whenever possible, not only disrupting the natural cycle of the forest, but promoting the continuation of unsound harvesting practices. The failure of this system has been well-documented, and is evident from the reforms of the past generation that purport to secure clean air and clean water by controlling the effluent of these industrial practices–without changing the fundamental practices themselves.
We have, today, a proposal to generate electrical power by combustion of raw wood products, i.e., woody parts of trees so recently killed that the needles and leaves are still green. The proposed technology, a Bubbling Fluidized Bed (BFB) boiler, was developed in 1979 in an attempt to reduce toxic emissions from burning coal. However, there is growing evidence that the technology produces a higher percentage of fine particulate, which is not regulated, in the exhaust. Over the past decade, this technology has been adapted for burning sludge and wood waste from paper production, an historically notoriously polluting industry, with the primary goal of disposing of the waste, with a token amount of power generation as a secondary by-product. Because coal and wood waste are chemically much different, the operation of these plants has not been the most optimal, for a number of reasons:
Coal has very low water content, while wood waste has, on average, more than 50% water content, greatly limiting the heat output per unit weight of the fuel, a large percentage of which is consumed in vaporizing the water, so that the overall efficiency is nominally25%, resulting in correspondingly higher carbon output in the
Because the composition and water content of the fuel is variable, the operational characteristics of the burner must be constantly monitored and regulated to keep the production of nitrogen and sulfur-based compounds within the prescribed limits.
The low heat content of the primary fuel often requires the addition of supplemental fuels to maintain the system output at efficient levels. In similar plants to the one proposed, supplemental fuels have ranged from primary wood fiber to discarded tires. The most likely source of supplemental fuel for this plant would be trees
that might otherwise be milled into lumber, or processed wood fiber.
Most coal-fired plants are supplied by railroads, directly from coal fields, which is a fairly efficient means of transport. Most wood-waste plants are supplied from an adjacent wood-products facility, such as a paper mill, and provide a means of efficiently disposing of a by-product of that facility. The proposed facility depends on fuel brought by trucks from distant logging operations, where it would otherwise be disposed of by open burning or natural decomposition, with a further decrease in net energy production and and increase in the immediate carbon release.
BFBs depend on having the fuel supplied in a uniformly small particle size. Coal is fairly uniform in composition and density and easily crushed to size. Wood waste, unless in the form of sludge from other processes, must be ground to size from saplings and branches. The proposal states that burning of bark and leaves will be minimized. If the processing of wood waste into burnable form is done on-site, it appears that there will be a certain percentage of accumulation of secondary waste, with the potential for release of concentrated tannins into the groundwater unless there is a separate disposal plan for bark and needles.
Power generation from both coal and wood produces ash as a byproduct. Ash, as with most concentrated chemical by-products, is toxic, containing heavy metals and salts. In modern burners, some of the ash is composed of calcium sulfates generated by the addition of limestone to the burner to reduce sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid emissions. Because of the low efficiency of wood-waste burners, the quantity of ash produced per megawatt-hour is substantially higher than that from other fuels.
The technical aspects of the project lead many scientists and engineers to question the wisdom of adapting existing technology to burn wood wastes as a “green” power source. Aside from the appalling inefficiency of power conversion and the difficulty in controlling the emissions in practice, there is the matter of logistics. The environmental impact of the acquisition of the fuel supply and disposal of the solid ash is of concern, and is not addressed in the permit application for the plant itself. A thorough environmental impact statement will address these issues: if the plant is ultimately approved, it will be with the consent of the citizens who will have to live with it and its aftermath, not by token compliance with outmoded and incomplete regulations.
Kraft, D.I., “Bubbling Fluid Bed Boiler Emissions Firing Bark & Sludge,” 1998 TAPPI Engineering Conference, Atlanta
Johnson, Leonard R., Bruce Lippke, John D. Marshall, and Jeffrey Comnick, “Life-Cycle Impacts of Forest Resource Activities in the Pacific Northwest and Southeast United States”, Wood and Fiber Science, December 2005, V. 37 Corrim Special Issue
Risi, George F.; Marshall E. Bloom; Nancy P. Hoe; Thomas Arminio; Paul Carlson; Tamara Powers; Heinz Feldmann; Deborah Wilson, “Preparing a Community Hospital to Manage Work-related Exposures to Infectious
Agents in BioSafety Level 3 and 4 Laboratories,” Emerging Infections Diseases. 2010;16(3)
Emerson, Rebecca, “Biosafety Regulations: Who’s Watching the Lab? Safety in High Risk Infectious Diseases Research,” 2006 Temple University School of Law, http://www.temple.edu/law/tjstel/2006/fall/v25no2-Emerson.pdf
About the Author:
Larye D. Parkins is an information technology professional with 45 years experience in systems engineering and software engineering. He received a B.A. in Physics from Wartburg College in 1965 and a Master of Software Engineering degree from Seattle University in 1991. He has been involved in the design and development of computing facilities and software in industrial settings for naval combat systems and biosafety facilities. His current projects include support of high-performance computing infrastructure for bioinformatics at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH, and he has contributed design and implementation of genomic data analyses for numerous articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was involved with development and modification of combat systems for the U.S. Navy Fast Attack Submarine projects and the Trident Ballistic Missile Submarine data processing subsystem. Over the past three decades, he has hiked and biked extensively on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. He currently resides in Shelton, Washington and Hamilton, Montana.