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Torrefaction plant awaiting permitting

Planning commission to hear zoning request.
Richard Hanners

Blue Mountain Eagle

Published on October 16, 2018 5:06PM

In order to use as biomass, woody debris must undergo a process called torrefaction, described as a ‘half-step below making charcoal.’

Contributed photo/Oregon Torrefaction

In order to use as biomass, woody debris must undergo a process called torrefaction, described as a ‘half-step below making charcoal.’

A hearing will be held Oct. 18 on a conditional use permit for a torrefaction plant planned at the Malheur Lumber Co. mill in John Day.

Eagle file photo

A hearing will be held Oct. 18 on a conditional use permit for a torrefaction plant planned at the Malheur Lumber Co. mill in John Day.

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While plans for a torrefaction plant in John Day are moving forward, with some new equipment already in John Day, the companies’ conditional-use zoning application must go before the Grant County Planning Commission after neighbors raised issues about emissions, traffic and noise.

The torrefaction plant will be owned and operated by Restoration Fuels LLC, a subsidiary of the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, a 501(c)3 public charity. The facility is expected to annually produce about 90,000 tons of torrefied wood briquettes for use as an alternative fuel for coal- or biomass-fired energy facilities.

The raw material, small-diameter biomass produced by current forest health restoration projects and stewardship contracts, will be trucked to the facility and then heated and compressed into energy-dense coal-like briquettes.

Restorations Fuels operations manager Joseph Koerner told the Eagle the torrefaction plant could be operating by the second quarter next year, depending on permit approval. Final design of the densification equipment, and resulting total production, will depend upon customer demand, he said.

Torrefaction addresses two important concerns, Koerner noted — what to do with small woody material removed to improve forest health and how to get large energy facilities off coal, which is blamed for global warming. Japanese companies were the most likely customers for the product, but U.S. companies have also expressed interest, he said.

Planning report

According to the Grant County Planning Department’s staff report, the companies need a conditional-use permit for the torrefaction plant because the parcel is adjacent to a residential zone. The county planning commission hearing will take place at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18, in the John Day Fire Hall.

The torrefaction plant will be located on Malheur Lumber Co.’s 68.25-acre mill site and will operate in conjunction with existing operations, the report said. The new equipment will be located as far from the residential zone as possible, more than 200 feet distant, the report said.

The new plant also will be more than 150 feet from the John Day River, and no disturbances to streamside vegetation are expected during construction. The Oregon Department of State Lands responded to the application by noting that wetlands exist on the parcel and should be delineated ahead of time to determine if any additional permits are required.

In an Aug. 30 letter to the planning department, neighbors John and Diane Aasness, Patricia Cotham and William Choate claimed large amounts of black smoke were released in the off hours at the mill and the emissions coated surfaces at their homes. They also claimed they were breathing emissions from a chemical used to manufacture wood pellets for home-heating, and they expressed concerns over truck traffic and speeds on Highway 26 and noise after 9 p.m.

Company response

Koerner and Rich Fulton, general manager at Malheur Lumber Co., responded to the neighbors in a Sept. 7 letter. They noted that the mill operates under a state-issued air contaminant discharge permit with stringent standards.

Koerner and Fulton said the mill has no recorded violations for particulate limits under the permit with no evidence of particulates landing on mill buildings. In addition, mill personnel have no knowledge of black smoke releases in off hours, they said.

“Having said that, the new equipment installations associated with the Restoration Fuels project will employ state-of-the-art emissions-control technology and are expected to reduce the overall site emissions of particulate material,” they said in the letter.

Koerner and Fulton noted that the shiny surface seen on manufactured wood pellets is created by the smooth metal dies used to squeeze the wood fibers into pellets. No chemical additives are used to bind the pellets, they said. The same type of high-pressure densification will be used to produce torrefied briquettes, they added.

Koerner and Fulton agreed that traffic on Highway 26 “needs to be controlled at safe speeds and with appropriate controls,” but the issue “is outside of our control.” As for noise, the torrefaction plant “is not expected to produce any inordinate amount of noise or off-site disturbance.”

“However, if it is determined that a particular piece of equipment does produce any high decibel or high frequency noise, we will address it as appropriate to prevent off-site disturbance,” they said.

The DEQ has not yet received an application from Restoration Fuels or Malheur Lumber Co. for a modification to the plant site’s existing air contaminant discharge permit, DEQ spokesman Greg Svelund told the Eagle. He said the companies have done some modeling based on estimated emissions from equipment to be installed for the torrefaction plant, but that modeling has not yet been presented to the DEQ.

According to the DEQ website, Malheur Lumber Co. was found to be in violation of its air contaminant discharge permit on Dec. 16, 2014. The company reportedly violated its plant site emission limit and paid a $5,316 fine.


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