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Construction under way, but biomass debate continues

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by MARK ST.J. COUHIG
Sequim Gazette

Harold Norlund and Paul Perlwitz don’t know why so many environmentalists oppose building a biomass-fueled cogeneration facility at the Nippon Paper Industries USA mill in Port Angeles.

 

They are baffled.

 

The company currently is spending $71 million expanding its boiler operations. When the project is completed, the plant will generate steam to power the facility’s operations and to produce up to 20 megawatts of salable electrical energy.

 

Norlund, the mill manager, said firing up the new boiler will result in 20-25 new high-paying jobs, better financial stability for the 200-employee mill and significantly lower air pollution emissions.

What’s not to like?

 

Plenty, say the members of Protect the Peninsula’s Future, North Olympic Group of the Sierra Club, No Biomass Burn, PT Airwatchers, World Temperate Rainforest Network and more. They disagree with Nippon’s assessment, saying the new boiler will increase air pollution, particularly by very fine particles.

 

Perlwitz, the mill’s environmental manager, gives the environmental organizations — which he collectively calls “the appellants” — credit for tenacity. “They say the agencies haven’t done their job,” Perlwitz said, pointing out that the project already has been approved by the Olympic Region Clean Air Agency (ORCAA), the Washington Department of Ecology, the Pollution Control Hearings Board, the Shoreline Hearings Board and the City of Port Angeles.

 

A Superior Court judge in Thurston County will hear another appeal in June with a decision expected soon thereafter.

 

Norlund said if the appellants are successful in stopping the project the status quo will be maintained.

That means the company’s current, less-efficient boiler will continue to burn biomass and the area timber companies will continue simply to burn on-site the slash piles that are created by logging operations.

 

That would be unfortunate for the mill, the economy and the environment, Norlund said.
He doesn’t anticipate the appellants will be successful.

BACT in fact?

In the suit the appellants say the air permit issued by the Olympic Region Clean Air Agency fails to require Best Available Control Technology (BACT) “for at least three health-damaging components” that will be released by the burner.

 

The appellants said Nippon’s plans to generate electricity by burning wood included assurances that the company would provide state-of-the-art systems “to control the noxious gases and health-damaging particles it would release.”

 

They say Nippon has failed to do so in its plans.

 

ORCAA and Ecology officials disagree.

 

Mark Goodin, an engineer with ORCAA, said Nippon met the requirements of the law. “Nippon is using BACT,” he said. “That’s one of the requirements for approval. We won’t approve anything unless it meets BACT.”

 

In the response to the suit, Ecology says, “Petitioners claim the use of Nippon’s emission factors enables Nippon to avoid a control technology that would substantially lower emission levels for the boiler.

 

“Petitioners are wrong.”

 

Norlund said his company met every requirement of the law. “Look at ORCAA’s website. You’ll see the final permit where they’ve stipulated that what was required for the permit was met.”

Pick up the pace

Perlwitz said the new boiler will burn “about 180,000 dry tons of fuel per year.”

 

He said that’s about twice what the current boiler uses, saying the additional fuel is required to generate the 20 megawatts of energy that will be produced when the project is completed.

 

Perlwitz added, “Even with the additional fuel the new pollution control devices can control particulate levels significantly below our previous emission levels. The end result will be that all types of particulate will decrease when the new boiler is operational.”

 

Bob Lynette, co-chairman of the North Olympic Group of the Sierra Club, disputes that claim, saying Nippon cherry-picked emissions data from the past 10 years to provide for comparison purposes. He said when compared to 2009 data, the overall planned emissions actually represent a 30-percent increase, though the particulate matter releases will drop by nearly half.

 

The fine particles released by the boiler are a further bone of statistical contention, with Perlwitz saying that the emissions-release estimates in their permit don’t take into account the reduction in fine particle releases from other sources in the county — in particular, the open-air slash pile burns now conducted.

 

He said these slash piles are now simply burned in place on site, “releasing 100 percent” of the air pollutants into the local atmosphere. The new boiler will filter out more than 99 percent of the bad stuff.

 

Perlwitz further pointed out that Washington Department of Ecology statistics say approximately 38 percent of the fine particles in Clallam air are put there by fires and vehicles, with the vast majority the result of these slash burns.

 

By comparison, the amount produced by industrial and commercial point sources is just 10 percent.

 

He said the amount of each will go down as Nippon takes in these slash piles for use in its new boiler.

That will reduce overall emissions in the county while reducing the pollutants now released by the mill’s current boiler.

Moreover, Norlund added, the company will first utilize the slash piles nearest the mill, producing an even greater positive impact on the local air quality.

 

Lynette once again disagreed, saying, “In all of Clallam County, we burn less than 7 percent annually of what Nippon will burn annually. Moreover, those field burns are far from population centers, whereas Nippon is upwind and very close to most of the North Peninsula’s citizens.”

 

Salley Otterson, emission inventory coordinator for the Washington Department of Ecology, provided slightly different numbers, saying from 2006 through 2008 permitted slash burns in Clallam County consumed 23,000 tons per year.

 

Perlwitz said that vast amounts of usable biomass remain and can be utilized.

 

A 2011 report by the University of Washington’s Olympic Natural Resources Center concluded there is more than sufficient biomass on the peninsula to fire the Nippon biomass plant and several others.

 

Jason Cross, a research coordinator with the research center, said that in 2008 and 2009 approximately 2.1 million “bone-dry tons” of biomass were generated annually in the five-county area covered by the study.

 

Perlwitz agreed, saying, “Our studies show that we have sufficient biomass out here. The opportunity is the reduction in those pollutants.”

Other concerns aired

Perlwitz also responded to speculation that once the boiler is open, Nippon may shut down its paper-making operations and become a power supplier only.

 

Perlwitz said the “value of the project was never calculated as a stand-alone. Every bit of steam that comes out is used again. Every bit of heat is used again. Our goal is to continue making paper and creating the steam at the best possible cost.”

 

Norlund agreed the sale of the electricity “will have value to the mill,” but declined to comment on its monetary value. He added that it is “green electricity.”

 

“We’re taking a waste product and recycling it. It’s already being burned.”

 

Norlund said America can choose to continue expanding its reliance on coal and other fossil fuels for energy production or it can turn to other means, including biomass.

 

“Is biomass a renewable energy? Yes,” he said, saying that opinion also is held by Gov. Christine Gregoire and by the Washington Legislature. He noted it is defined as such in the state’s Energy Independence Act.

 

Norlund said the project will produce “cleaner air, jobs and spin-off economic impacts.”

 

Reach Mark Couhig at mcouhig@sequimgazette.com.

 

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