By Sage Birchwater –
It’s been a year now since Atlantic Power Corporation (APC) unveiled its plan to ask the Ministry of Environment for permission to burn millions of railway ties as feedstock for its Williams Lake biomass-fuelled energy plant.
Provincial environmental regulators haven’t given their answer yet, but many people in Williams Lake are nervous.
To understand the implications, the company is asking permission to burn up to a 50/50 mix of creosote-laden rail ties and untreated sawmill waste known as hog fuel. The Williams Lake Power Plant (WLPP) burns 450,000 tonnes annually, so potentially it could burn 225,000 tonnes of toxic material per year.
Atlantic Power says it would burn less than half of that, like 112,500 tonnes or 1.6 million rail ties, but a growing number of people in Williams Lake feel that importing and burning that much toxic material in an environment subject to high winds and temperature inversions is setting the stage for something to go wrong.
“It’s a recipe for disaster,” says retired forester Jim Hilton. “And burning ties is completely unnecessary.”
Hilton is part of an ad hoc group of two dozen Williams Lake residents who came together in the fall of 2015 to examine the rail tie burning proposal in more detail. The group researched the issue extensively.
“It raises many questions we can’t get answers to,” Hilton says.
Like peeling an onion, once one set of unknowns gets resolved, a whole new layer of questions is revealed.
Despite a smooth sales job by Atlantic Power Corporation assuring the public that their state-of-the-art facility would reduce most of the toxins in the rail ties to their base elements, the optics of Williams Lake becoming a destination for burning western Canada’s surplus of old railway ties lingers like a bad taste in one’s mouth.
In a perfect world, most of the poisons would be rendered inert by the 1,100-degree-Celsius temperatures, but as one former Ministry of Environment employee points out, things do go wrong. Accidents happen because of human error, equipment wears out, shortcuts are implemented driven by shareholder pressure for higher profits, or the unexpected happens. Then who pays the cost? Like the Mount Polley mine breach of 2014, the citizens are left with a spoiled environment.
Williams Lake is already struggling with an image problem as the crime capital of British Columbia. How will becoming the rail tie-burning capital of Western Canada look on its resume?
Atlantic Power says burning rail ties is the answer for the projected wood fibre shortfall once the region’s annual allowable timber harvest is cut in half in the next five to nine years.
Hilton points out that three BC Hydro reports confirm there is plenty of clean residual wood fibre left in the bush to support the power plant, but he suspects Atlantic Power’s chief interest in burning rail ties is all about maximizing corporate profits.
“The energy plant was built to deal with wood waste produced by the forest industry,” Hilton says. “It was never intended as a facility to burn contaminated wood products.”
He notes that the ash from burning clean residual fibre has value as an ingredient for fertilizer or pavement. Ash from burning rail ties must be managed in perpetuity as a toxic substance.
A little history of Williams Lake Power Plant (WLPP) might help put the rail tie burning issue into perspective.
In 2008, when the global recession forced sawmills in Williams Lake to curtail their production, hog fuel wood waste to feed the energy plant was in short supply. WLPP, then owned by Capital Power of Edmonton, was faced with shutting down.
That’s when local logging contractors stepped forward and offered to grind up wood waste slated to be burned in the bush, and bring it to the energy plant. They signed a contract with Capital Power and at its peak had eight to ten grinders producing 100 truckloads of residual logging debris (RLD) per day.
The WLPP stayed open, and the higher costs of burning the RLD feedstock was paid by BC Hydro.
In 2004, the energy plant got an environmental permit to burn five per cent of its feedstock as rail ties. Back in 2001 in conjunction with the Ministry of Environment, WLPP did a test burn of 100 per cent rail ties over a three-day period, and the results were measured. Then in 2008 CN Rail set up a rail tie grinding operation beside the Station House Gallery close to the Williams Lake downtown core, and between 2008 and 2010 the energy plant burned between three and four per cent of its feedstock as rail ties.
Due to safety, health and environmental concerns, the City of Williams Lake shut down the rail tie grinding operation. Since 2010 WLPP ceased burning rail ties completely.
Meanwhile contractors continued supplying the energy plant with RLD even after the sawmills ramped up production again. Between 2008 and 2011 more than 10,000 truckloads of RLD were delivered to the plant, and this generated an infusion of $20 million into the Williams Lake economy.
In the fall of 2011 Atlantic Power Corporation purchased the WLPP from Capital Power, and almost immediately the new owners terminated the agreement with the contractors supplying RLD to the energy plant. Atlantic Power says BC Hydro was no longer willing to pay for the higher cost of the residual wood fibre.
The ad hoc committee opposed to burning rail ties in Williams Lake hosted two public meetings and led a delegation to City Hall asking the mayor and council to stand up for the city.
“We need to exercise the precautionary principle,” Hilton insists. “There is too much unknown about burning railway ties, and too much that can go wrong.”
He says it will take the will of government to reject the application to burn rail ties and the will of the company, BC Hydro, and the provincial government to make burning residual RLD wood fibre affordable.
“Burning rail ties will create three extra jobs at WLPP shredding ties. Supplying the power plant with clean residual fibre will create 50 to 60 jobs and protect our environment,” says Hilton.
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.