When environmental organizations pushed Washington voters to approve their renewable energy Initiative 937, they touted biomass energy — incinerated wood waste — as one of their preferred alternatives to fossil fuel. They reasoned that biomass energy plants would help clear forests of flammable wood debris from dead and diseased timber, put idled loggers and millworkers back to work and produce cleaner, more affordable energy.
But since voters narrowly approved the initiative in 2006, many of those same activists are battling against biomass projects.
They now claim that microscopic nanoparticulates created by incinerating wood waste are a health hazard, even though those plants have been approved by government agencies. They want to block all proposed biomass projects until nanoparticulates are fully investigated and the EPA can promulgate regulations. That could take years, but that’s okay with opponents because by then the plants will have been canceled because of indecision and delay.
The opposition to biomass is disheartening to devastated timber communities on the Olympic Peninsula where unemployment ranges from 11.2 percent to 13.9 percent. Even before the Great Recession hit, these communities were decimated by deep cuts in state and federal timber harvests and endangered species regulations that put forests off-limits to protect the spotted owl.
Even with the vast woods put off limits, the University of Washington’s Olympic Natural Resources Center reports there is currently enough wood debris on the Olympic Peninsula to operate six biomass plants. Two of those biomass projects are attached to paper mills in Port Angeles and Port Townsend.
The Port Townsend Paper Company’s $55 million biomass plant would create 30 new jobs, save 1.8 million gallons of oil and cut particulate emissions by 70 percent. Nippon’s Port Angeles facility would cost $71 million and replace a 1950’s era boiler that was not designed to alleviate greenhouse gases.
For Olympic Peninsula workers and their struggling families, the opposition to biomass projects is both puzzling and frustrating. Fifty years ago, wood waste from state, federal and private timber harvests was burned in crude, inefficient cone-shaped burners, often blanketing the skies with brownish-gray smoke. But today’s sawmills and paper mills burn wood waste in efficient wood-fired furnaces that produce heat and steam for papermaking and create enough electricity to run the mills and provide power for neighboring homes.
For example, Sierra Pacific, which has a modern sawmill at Aberdeen and a total of six biomass generating plants, turns wood waste into electricity for 150,000 homes and businesses. Without income from power sales, the plants would have been forced to severely curtail operations, lay off workers or close.
Some activists would like to see our forests locked away, put off limits to all human activity. But like the rest of nature, forests are dynamic, always changing. Trees grow, trees die, and over the years, volatile wood debris builds up on the forest floor, creating fuel for mammoth fires. For example, in just two days during 1902, our state’s largest wildfire, known as the Yacolt Burn, destroyed more than 370 square miles of forestlands around Mt. St. Helens and killed 38 people in Clark, Cowlitz and Skamania counties.
Today, we have the ability to prevent such massive destruction, but will we?
Biomass projects are an opportunity to recycle dangerous timber debris, create renewable energy, produce electricity for our homes and businesses, and create much-needed jobs in struggling rural communities.
With flammable wood remains collecting on the forest floor and timber workers collecting unemployment checks, it seems silly, wasteful and dangerous to oppose biomass, a solution that will reduce wildfires, increase jobs and produce cleaner, more affordable renewable energy.