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New study says peninsula forests can fuel facilities

by MARK ST.J. COUHIG
Sequim Gazette

A new report, now undergoing its final edits, provides the data to perhaps answer an important question in the biomass debate.

 

The report, which soon will be issued by the University of Washington’s Olympic Natural Resources Center, concludes there is more than sufficient biomass on the peninsula to fuel the currently operating boiler at Forks High School and the proposed boilers at the Nippon Paper Industries plant in Port Angeles and at the Port Townsend Paper mill.

 

To produce the report, researchers at the research center studied the peninsula forestry projects conducted in 2008-2009 and performed field surveys. Jason Cross, a research coordinator with the research center, says in those two years 2.1 million “bone-dry tons” of biomass were generated annually in the five-county area covered by the study. That’s more than enough to fuel the approximately 1 million tons needed to fire the three biomass projects, he said.

 

The study was conducted through a review of more than 1,400 Forest Practice Applications filed in the five-county area in 2008-2009. FPAs are required before harvesting timber, building roads or conducting other forest practices activities.

 

Cross said the study only dealt with biomass left after these actions and only took into account the biomass that is readily available, either strewn across the ground or piled in stacks.

 

Cross said leaving this material where it falls isn’t practical because the tree replanting required by law is made considerably more difficult and expensive when the slash is left in place. Slash piles are a fire hazard and can cover a considerable portion of land that otherwise would be replanted, he said.

 

“If we left all of the stuff, it’s more costly and difficult for trees to get a foothold. It’s part of site prep for replanting.”

Keeping the forests healthy

Cross also addressed questions regarding the impact of biomass on soil fertility, saying the collection and removal of the biomass has little or no long-term impact on the soil’s health. He said soil nutrients are maintained by a forest’s “nitrogen replenishing system,” which is mostly a function of leaving the “green stuff and bark. We do a pretty good job of leaving what we don’t want. What we take is carbon.”

 

Cross concluded, “There is no statistical evidence we’re depleting our soil productivity over multiple rotations.”

 

Cross said the ability of peninsula forests to replenish the nitrogen in the soil “isn’t universal. It’s just that we have the most productive forests because of our sunshine ... and moisture. In eastern Washington that probably isn’t true.”

Not so fast

Bonnie Phillips, former executive director of the Olympic Forest Coalition, regards biomass burning “as the next major problem for the health of our forests — and for human health as well.” She noted there is “intense pressure for a huge expansion of wood biomass plants for energy production.”

 

In recent months, Gov. Christine Gregoire, Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark and numerous state representatives have all provided Nippon with statements of support for its planned biomass cogeneration plant.

 

Phillips is undeterred, saying, “Proponents of biomass claim that their source is sustainable — small-diameter trees from thinning, branches and other parts of trees that are not part of a normal commercial logging operation. Questions about whether this ‘slash’ should be left on the forest floor to benefit soils and resident critters are not asked, much less answered. Proponents also claim — often with no scientific backing — that removing this material helps prevent forest fires.”

 

Phillips continued, “For those of us in the West, these problems have surfaced only this year as state Land Commissioner Peter Goldmark has begun pushing woody biomass as a means of energy production — and of enhancing the Department of Natural Resources’ ability to sell more trees.”

 

Phillips says she is actively participating in a national conversation regarding the burning of biomass and described some of her conclusions: “As more biomass plants are developed, the sources become less sustainable and the push is on to log whole trees. That’s how it’s gone in the eastern part of the U.S.; we can expect the same in our region.”

 

Bob Lynette, co-chairman of the North Olympic Group of the Sierra Club, also is skeptical. He recently told the Gazette, “(We must) be sure that we leave enough on the forest floor to provide nutrients for future generations of trees.”


Lynette said, “The wood on the ground that nourishes future generations takes 25 to 60 years to degenerate and give up its nutrients, so only a comparison of a plot where the wood was removed to the third or fourth generation of growth and decay would be a fair test.”

On the other hand

Nippon mill manager Harold Norlund notes the Port Angeles plant has been burning biomass successfully for more than 90 years and simply is asking to replace the aging boiler with a new, larger and more efficient model. Even though the new boiler will roughly double the amount of biomass burned at the mill, he says that won’t begin to tax the amount of readily available biomass on the peninsula. In fact, he said, as much as half of the required biomass will be retrieved from local sawmills — utilizing what would otherwise be of little value to anyone.

 

He acknowledged that in slow economic years, with the resulting decline in demand for lumber, the plant would further rely on biomass collected at logging and other cleared sites.

 

Norlund also said the mill is moving forward with plans for its new cogeneration plant and hopes to have the final permits in place by April. He would like to have the new boiler operating by August 2012.

 

Nippon officials have said they will spend $71 million expanding their boiler operations, which upon completion would generate steam to power the facility’s operations and up to 20 megawatts of salable electrical energy. The $50 million Port Townsend cogeneration plan also would help power the mill and create 24 megawatts of electricity that could be sold.

Reach Mark Couhig at mcouhig@sequimgazette.com.

 

 

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