By Sage Birchwater —
Atlantic Power Corporation, owner of the biomass-fuelled electricity generation plant in Williams Lake, wants to burn old railway ties to fuel its 66-megawatt facility.
The plant, which can burn up to 600,000 tons of wood fibre per year, has been in operation since 1993 on the strength of a 25-year energy purchase agreement (EPA) with BC Hydro. This agreement is due to expire in three years, and the company must now convince BC Hydro it has enough potential fuel to justify a 10-year extension of its EPA.
The biomass generating facility was established to address a critical air quality problem in Williams Lake. Fly ash from several beehive sawmill burners filled the Williams Lake Valley with a perpetual smoky haze. Particulate emissions were both harmful to people’s health and detrimental to the quality of life.
When the power plant replaced the beehive burners with a highly efficient, high heat engineered boiler system to consume wood waste, the region saw an immediate improvement in air quality. Particulate emissions were reduced by 90 per cent.
Twenty years ago the annual allowable cut (AAC) for the Williams Lake timber supply area was temporarily increased beyond sustainable levels to harvest forests impacted by an epidemic of mountain pine beetle. Now that these trees have been cut, the region is faced with a drastic reduction in its AAC to compensate for the overcutting. That means less potential mill waste to fuel Atlantic Power’ s electric generation facility.
Other manufacturers like Pinnacle Pellet plant, which began operating in Williams Lake in 2004, compete with Atlantic Power for sawmill wood waste. So the squeeze is on and the clock is ticking for Atlantic Power to come up with enough bio-fuel to convince BC Hydro to extend its EPA. Burning ground up railway ties is part of that strategy.
The question on many people’ s minds is: what is the long-term impact on the health of the community if Williams Lake becomes a destination to shred and burn creosote-laden railway ties from all over western Canada? How will that impact the Williams Lake air shed? Will there be an incremental accumulation of toxicity detrimental to the health and well-being of the citizens who live there?
It’s a concern to Mayor Walt Cobb.
Whatever we do we’re creating an impact on the environment. We want clean water. I want to be able to breathe clean air. If they can prove to us this works then I guess we’ll just have to trust our science and hopefully they are doing their job.”
“We don’t want any more pollution,” he says. “But on the other hand, if we can’t get them [Atlantic Power] any more fibre supply it means they will be gone.”
Cobb is quick to point out what it was like before the biomass-fuelled energy plant started operating.
“Atlantic Power started because of the fly ash,” he says. “So then what do we do with the wood waste? We certainly don’t want to go back to the old burner system.”
The mayor admits he’s not an expert.
“From my point of view I’m going to have to listen to the scientists. That’s what the ministry of environment is all about.
They’ll tell us if it’s good or isn’t any good. I don’t know. I don’t have a clue.”
He says hopefully all the right questions are being asked.
“I have to rely on the science. I’m not an expert. Whatever we do we’re creating an impact on the environment. We want clean water. I want to be able to breathe clean air. If they can prove to us this works then I guess we’ll just have to trust our science and hopefully they are doing their job.”
On June 17, 2015, Atlantic Power Corporation held an open meeting in Williams Lake to initiate the public consultation process that will allow them to burn railway ties and extend its energy purchase agreement with BC Hydro. The public consultation process will continue this fall.
Under its current permit, five per cent of the energy plant’s bio-fuels can be railway ties. Now Atlantic Power wants to increase that percentage in its bio-fuel mix to 15-25 percent annually. It also wants the flexibility to burn a 50/50 mix of rail ties and traditional wood fibre on a periodic basis.
Terry Shannon, Atlantic Power’s environmental manager, explains how the design of the boiler is the key to high temperature combustion.
“Two seconds at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and toxic substances are destroyed to their base elements,” he says.
Between 2004 and 2010 three to four per cent of Atlantic Power’s bio-fuel was railway ties, but since 2010 it ceased to burn any at all.
In 2001, the power plant did a test burn using 100 per cent rail ties, and tests showed that most pollutants were either destroyed by the high burn temperatures or removed using the plant’s environmental controls.
A potential side benefit of the power plant that has been discussed is to utilize the steam generated by the boilers to heat greenhouses that could be located on nearby land.
“The level of pollutants was well within the provincial standard,” Shannon says.
This begs the question: what constitutes safe levels of these highly toxic pollutants in our environment?
The company stopped burning rail ties when the City of Williams Lake curtailed CN Rail’s grinding of the ties out in the open on CN property behind the Station House Gallery. There was concern about storage of highly combustible material close to the city’ s downtown, contamination of the ground water, and noxious fumes from the creosote.
Shannon says if the company gets the green light to increase its volume of railway ties, shredding of the material will occur in a tightly controlled facility on Atlantic Power property.
“Storage of shredded ties will be minimized in small volumes in order to avoid any possible issues,” he says.
On the asset side of the ledger Atlantic Power offers an environmentally sound way to dispose of sawmill wood waste. The company is also important to the Williams Lake economy, providing 32 full-time jobs paying above average salaries, and contributing $1.3 million to the city tax base.
Having a processing facility to utilize old railway ties will provide a regional environmental benefit by reducing the number of rail ties that accumulate along the tracks. Over one million ties are replaced in Western Canada each year.
A potential side benefit of the power plant that has been discussed is to utilize the steam generated by the boilers to heat greenhouses that could be located on nearby land. Presently the steam is an untapped resource sent up into the atmosphere.
On the debit side of the ledger, burning rail ties does create more pollutants such as dioxins and furans in the airshed. According to Terry Shannon, these are miniscule amounts, well below provincial standards. But questions remain.
What are these provincially acceptable standards? With ongoing burning of rail ties at the energy plant, how cumulative will these very poisonous substances become? How will they affect the long term living space around Williams Lake?
We are asked to trust the science of the government regulators. Shouldn’t we know more about these safe levels of noxious substances accumulating in our environment? Is there a threshold point where it is no long safe? We need to know these facts.
As part of its study of the Williams Lake Valley airshed, Atlantic Power is conducting tests and monitoring hour by hour throughout the year where emissions go.
This information will become available a future public meetings hosted by Atlantic Power as the company goes through the permitting process.
For more information, go to www.atlanticpower.com. Under “assets” at the top of the page, click on “projects” then click on Williams Lake. Go to the bottom of the page and click on Williams Lake renewal project FAQ (frequently asked questions). The company is not shy to ask the right questions.
Now we need a few more answers.
Sage Birchwater arrived in the Cariboo as a back-to-the-lander in 1973. After 24 years in the Chilcotin he returned to Williams Lake as a freelancer and author of books. He enjoys his time with Caterina, gardening and participating in the rich cultural life of the Cariboo-Chilcotin Coast.