JOHN DAY - The silos loom high, the dryers are in place, and the "great wall" stands ready for the first load of chips.

With construction entering its final phase, Ochoco Lumber Company's new pellet plant is becoming a reality at the company's Malheur Lumber Company millsite in John Day.

The project is funded in large part by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. The Malheur National Forest, which applied successfully for about $5 million in stimulus money to site a woody biomass plant in the region, is joining the company in hosting an open house next Wednesday, Oct. 20, at the site.

The event will celebrate the planned start-up of the plant in December. The plant is expected to create about 15 new jobs, and also enhance job security for the Malheur sawmill's workforce of about 80.

Mike Billman, the project manager for Malheur Lumber, said the opening will mean the addition of a second, albeit smaller, shift at the John Day millsite.

JH Kelly is the general contractor, but Billman said the construction is providing work for local companies as well.

"Our request has been to use local whenever possible," said Billman, who wrote Malheur's proposal for the plant.

The project has drawn technical and business support from an array of state and federal officials, and the Forest Service worked with Business Oregon, the state's economic development arm, to site the plant.

A key partner for Malheur Lumber is Bear Mountain Forest Products, which already has developed a successful operation for its trademarked Bear Bricks and Golden Fire pellets, and will market the products produced in John Day.

Andrew Haden of A3 Energy Partners, a Bear Mountain subsidiary, was instrumental in the design of the John Day facility, Billman said.

"We couldn't have done it without A3 and Bear Mountain," Billman said.

At the open house, Billman will offer visitors a glimpse of how the process will work.

In a tour last week, he started at the concrete slab standing on end at the north end of the project.

"We call that the great wall," he said. The retaining wall is where the rough chips are unloaded - the pellet plant will take about five log truck loads a day.

The chips are moved via a conveyor to the hammer hog, a compact but powerful machine that grinds them from about 1-3/4-inch minus down to 3/4-inch minus.

"It just beats the dickens out of them, and then they drop through a screen to another conveyor," Billman said.

That takes them on to a belt, or bed, dryer that's 8 feet wide and 50 foot in length. The dryer heats the chips to 250-300 degrees - hot enough, but not as hot as the rotary-drum style used in other types of lumber operations.

During this stage of the process, "the cyclones" - structures that look like spaceship nose cones - use forced air to separate fine particulates from the material as it dries. The refuse isn't wasted, however, but captured for use as hog fuel at the mill.

"There's not going to be any waste here," said Billman. "We use everything."

The chips move on by conveyor to the hammer mill, which beats them down to an even finer size. Then they're blown into piping that carries them to the top of one of two 60-foot silos.

Malheur purchased the twin silos from the Louisiana-Pacific millsite at Hines. Buying "used" enabled them to install two silos, rather than just one new one, adding flexibility to the production schedule. Billman said with two silos, they can store different types of "furnish," or processed material, for the different products the mill will make.

Each silo will store enough for eight hours worth of production, Billman said.

From there, the reduced chips are brought into the building, where specialized machines turn them into either bricks or pellets. The brick machines came from Germany, while the pellet machine came from Oklahoma. Other equipment at the plant hails from Kentucky, Mississippi, Indiana, and Oregon, Billman said.

Once the bricks come out of the machine, they can be loaded onto pallets and wrapped for shipping. The pellets come out hot, however, and must go into a cooling silo first. Screens are used to shake out any "fines" - fine material that is then routed back into the system to be used in the next batch of pellets.

The finished pellets are taken through an opening in the ceiling and deposited into an exterior silo. From there, they are either bagged for sale in stores or loaded onto the trucks that do bulk deliveries to places like the new Grant County Regional Airport terminal.

How soon could that happen?

Billman said the plan is to be making pellets by December. Hiring will be under way in November.

Malheur already has hired the manager for the pellet plant, and he's a familiar name in Grant County.

John Rowell has spent about 15 years in Lithuania, working for Ochoco Lumber Company. Before that he lived in Grant County for 16 years, running a small sawmill.

He returned about a month ago to take on the pellet plant job. His wife, a teacher who is Lithuanian, is expected to join him as soon as she can.

Rowell said he is familiar with pellet operations from his time abroad, where they are more common, although he hasn't run one before.

While there will be differences, he said, his sawmill experience is the key.

"It's all related," he said, adding that he's looking forward to seeing the construction phase completed. He said the Malheur plant seems state-of-the-art.

"I'm excited about getting it running," he said.

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