By Cam Fortems
Kamloops This Week
They are the garbage dumps of the forest: a tangle of fat, scarred Douglas fir ends ravaged by fire, three-metre-long tree tops and twisted pieces deemed too small for the mill.
Pushed and scraped into heaps along with needles, twigs and the occasional boulder, these slash piles will remain through the summer until the cold fall and early winter months, when a little fuel and a match will make the waste disappear.
But, fingers were pointed at the forest industry last fall when the Thompson Valley became choked with smoke as an unexpected inversion set in during the annual rite of burning slash piles.
A study released in January by Kamloops Physicians for a Healthy Environment pointed to smoke from woodwaste burning as the culprit for typically poor air-quality numbers in November.
However, what the forest industry has considered waste for decades has ecological and economic value — if someone can just figure out how to make it pay.
Despite an awareness of the issue for decades, a complete solution has eluded the province.
“The mill specifies what the logger does,” said Walt Klenner, a habitat biologist overseeing a pilot project by the Kamloops Forest Region looking at ways to utilize the material that is otherwise going up in smoke.
In today’s market, it’s typical that a sawmill will demand 18-foot-six-inch-long logs that can be cut at the mill to create nine-foot studs, an increasingly popular size in home construction.
A computer-controlled processor takes measurements and it cuts the log to the precise size at the logging site.
Everything else is waste and most ends up in the slash pile.
What’s different in this logging operation conducted by a Tk’emlups Indian Band-owned firm is piles have been taken apart and sorted so Klenner can get a better idea of the value it might hide.
The piles are comprised of bucking waste (defects, scars and rot); small-diameter tops; potentially merchantable sawlogs; and branches and fines.
The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Options is researching whether there is an economic market for the lower-grade sawlogs, tops and bucking waste.
“How do we make money?” Klenner said.
“We can’t expect the licencees to do something different if they get less money.”
It’s not just money, however.
Klenner said the ministry also has to determine the potential ecological value if some of the waste is left on the forest floor. He calls a six-foot scarred log left at this site, for example, an “energy bar” that will provide nutrients to the soil for years.
Complicating factors include fire risk from leaving too much material on the forest floor and potential complaints from the public
“Some people want to see it like a Bavarian woodlot, perfectly raked. Others see it as potential habitat,” Klenner said.
The obvious, if not best, option would appear to be burning the material to create power or using it for pulp. Other options include use for poles.
A few kilometres north of this site, tonnes of wood chips are piled at a landing next to Lac Le Jeune Road, where a giant grinder owned by Ledcor chewed through the material to produce wood chips.
Those chips will be trucked to a reload facility on the Fraser River and then barged to Howe Sound Pulp and Paper for use in its co-generation plant “where the energy isn’t just heading into the clouds,” said Andrew Hansen, Ledor’s manager of biomass operations.
The logging slash is free for the taking and has value, but the challenge is getting it to market in a cost-efficient way.
Klenner is trying to get a handle on the numbers and is helping companies such as Ledcor get better access.
Ledcor has provided data to Klenner for the project. Hansen said the company has been successful obtaining woodwaste, but wants more through co-ordinating with timber licencees.
Harry Nelson, an assistant professor in the University of B.C.’s forestry faculty, said in an email message the value of woodwaste depends on where it is found. Sites distant from highways cannot be accessed by chip trucks and fuel costs make it too expensive to truck long distance for energy recovery.
“For example, if there were nearby a power plant [i.e Atlantic Power] or pulp mill, they may be interested in using the material for burning for heat and power generation — subject to the costs of getting the material to their location,” he said.
In fact, a French-based corporation is now constructing a $200-million co-generation facility in the Nicola Valley.
However, a senior executive noted, it has not factored slash piles into its plans
Fadi Oubari, business development vice-president for Veolia Group, said the co-generation facility’s woodwaste will be overwhelmingly sourced from regional sawmills.
Domtar’s pulp mill in Kamloops is a competitor for the material.
“If you say, ‘I’ll take it,’ they’ll say, ‘Thank you very much,’” is how Oubari describes the allure of slash piles.
But, the material is inconsistent and sometimes distant from the mill, while the plant requires a regular feed of woodwaste.
When the report is completed this year, it will offer a comprehensive look at slash piles, including their ecological and potential economic values.
It will also recommend ways to make it easier for energy companies to get access to the material once the loggers are gone.
“Government needs to find ways to facilitate licencees to do this,” Klenner said.