[EXCLUSIVE] Bioenergy Industry Fires and Explosions
– by Josh Schlossberg, The Biomass Monitor
Fires and/or explosions have occurred at over 50 industrial bioenergy facilities and storage areas over the last fifteen years, resulting in multiple injuries and nine deaths, based on research from The Biomass Monitor.
Fires at bioenergy facilities typically start from boiler fires, spontaneous combustion of fermenting woodchip or sawdust piles, or wood dust explosions, according to the Institution of Fire Engineers and F.E. Moran Plant Services.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) calls dust fires a “major industrial hazard.”An October 2009 OSHA report notes 280 dust fires and explosions at industrial sites—the largest percentage being wood, but also including “food products, metal products, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, rubber and plastic products, paper products, furniture, electric and sanitary services, transportation equipment, durable goods, and textile mills”—over the past 25 years, which have killed 119 people and injured 700. OSHA conducted 1,000 inspections, with 25% of inspections of wood related facilities and found 3,786 federal (74% serious) violations and 1,140 state (34% serious).
The most recent bioenergy-related accident occurred on March 12 when a pile of biomass fuels spontaneously combusted at a biomass power facility in Nakhon Ratchasima’s Chokchai district in Thailand.
Eight biomass boilers and a shed containing wood chips ignited at Corby Biomass Systems Limited in Fermanagh, Ireland on January 12, 2017.
A two alarm fire broke out at Biomass One, a 30-megawatt biomass power facility in White City, Oregon on December 14, causing an evacuation. Biomass One also experienced two separate fires on September 11, one with flames 25 feet high. Sawdust was blamed for the ignitions.
A biomass conveyor belt caught fire at Hibbing Public Utilities due to a “bearing failure” on December 13, costing the facility $70,000.
A fire ignited from unknown causes in the garbage pit at the Durham York Energy Center trash incinerator in Cortice, Ontario, Canada on October 12.
A tanker truck driver was critically injured and later died when a fire erupted as he was loading ethanol onto his truck from the Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy refinery in Council Bluffs, Iowa on October 7.
Two workers at the Spokane, Washington Waste-to-Energy Facility suffered burns from a ruptured hot water pipe on October 4, and were taken to the hospital where they remain in critical condition.
Three welders were killed in an explosion at the Thai Ethanol Power Plant in Thailand on September 12. The explosion is believed to have been the result of sparks from welding igniting leaking biogas.
A commercial wood chip storage facility in Ballachulish Bridge, UK caught fire on August 27.
A power outage caused a fire at the Green Plains ethanol refinery in Wood River, Nebraska, damaging the facility’s dryer on July 7.
Leaking hydraulic fuel caught fire under a boiler at the Wheelabrator trash incinerator in Bridgeport, Connecticut on May 31.
A pile of wood debris and building material to be turned into biomass fuel ignited at a Christmas tree farm near Totnes, Devon, United Kingdom on May 16.
A fire resulted in the death of one worker and injury of another at the Poet ethanol biorefinery in Lincoln County, North Dakota on May 6. The fire was believed to be sparked by a welding incident and OSHA is investigating.
Biomax Fuels Ltd., a biofuel manufacturing facility near Vishakhapatnam, in southern India, caught fire on April 27. The cause of the fire is unknown.
“Intense flames” broke out at a Chinese biomass power company in Qiqhar City, Heilongjiang Province on March 1. Firefighters took five hours to put out the blaze.
Fire crews were called to the scene of an explosion at Valero Renewable Fuels in Mt. Vernon, Indiana on January 18.
The Wheelabrator Concord trash incinerator in Concord, New Hampshire experienced a “deep-seated trash fire” on January 8, 2016.
40,000 tons of wood chips caught fire at Newport Docks in Wales, U.K. November 16, 2015.
100 tons of smoldering wood pellets were unloaded from a cargo ship at Port of Tyne in the U.K. on November 5.
The generator at Pinetree Power in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, owned by GDF Suez, exploded and caught fire on October 6, breaking it into pieces, some 1,000 pounds, and with smaller pieces flying up to dozens of feet away.
A fire ignited in a boiler at the Wheelabrator trash incinerator in Saugus, Massachusetts on September 30. It was blamed on trash that got stuck in a door on the grate system.
Two explosions injured four people, two seriously, at a biomass power facility in Borselle, Zeeland, Netherlands, on September 23.
OSHA fined a Geismar, Louisiana biofuels refinery $70,000 for a September 3 hydrogen gas explosion that injured four workers.
A conveyor belt caught fire at the Colmac Biomass Power Plant in Mecca, California on August 28.
Piles of biomass at the Tracy Storage Facility for Agra Marketing ignited in Tracy, California on May 20. The facility stores organic materials for composting and biofuels. Air district authorities warned residents of three counties to avoid prolonged exposure to the air.
On May 13, 2015 the “recycled waste” of Lancaster Fuels 4U, a biomass company in North Wales, caught fire. This is the second fire at the site, the first occurring in May 2014.
Piles of palm kernel shells caught fire at a biomass power facility in Krabi, Thailand on April 8.
A “major fire” broke out in a pile of biomass chips in Motril, Spain on January 30.
On January 13, 2015 a woodchip pile in King George V Graving Dock ignited owned by Eco Sustainable Solutions Limited.
A fire broke out on December 13, 2014 on a conveyor belt at the 10-megawatt Eagle Valley Clean Energy biomass facility in Gypsum, Colorado. Eagle Valley has filed a $19.3 million lawsuit against Wellons, Inc. the company that built the facility, blaming shoddy construction for the fire. An investigation of the fire found that the fire hydrants owned by Eagle Valley were only delivering 15% of the water they were supposed to. The facility reopened again in November 2015, nearly a year later.
Three were injured in an October 10 fire at the Pinnacle wood pellet plant near Burns Lake, British Columbia. The company was fined $56,000 by WorkSafe B.C. for failure to maintain safe working conditions.
Indianhead Biomass Services in St. Augustine, Florida had two explosions in a period of four months, in March and July 2014. The March explosion in a wood gas heat exchanger resulted in one worker permanently disabled and a second one injured, resulting in 9 OSHA violations. The July explosion occurred when smoldering embers in a sawdust drier ignited. OSHA is recommending a $91,000 fine.
A “major fire” ignited from the bagasse (sugar cane residue) and other materials stored at the Shendra Green Energy biomass power facility in Aurangabad, India on June 23.
A South Yorkshire, UK biomass depot at storing wood chips for biomass power plants caught fire on June 2, six weeks after a previous fire at the R Plevin and Sons facility.
A fire broke out in one of the main turbines of E.On’s biomass power facility in Ironbridge, Shropshire on February 4, 2014. The facility previously dealt with a fire in its wood pellet storage area on October 3, 2013.
The MFA Biomass facility in Aurora, Missouri, which converts sawdust to pellets, caught fire on October 13, 2013.
On October 12, 2013 a “difficult and dangerous” fire erupted in a conveyer transfer tower at a biomass pellet storage facility in Port of Tyne in South Shields, South Tyneside, UK.
A wood-burning biomass facility caught on fire at Hexham’s Egger UK Chipboard Plant in Hexham, UK, on June 2.
A boiler at the Buena Vista Biomass Power Plant in Amador County, California ruptured on May 30, 2013. Two people were injured, one seriously (airlifted to Sacramento Hospital with burns and cuts) from the “catastrophic mechanical failure.”
The Koda Energy combined-heat-and-power biomass facility in Shakopee, Minnesota exploded on April 25, 2013, igniting a fire in two of its fuel storage silos that burned for over a week. The 23.4 megawatt facility burns wood chips, oat hulls and other organic materials to generate electricity for Xcel Energy Inc. The cause of the fire has not been determined.
A 600 megawatt coal/biomass facility in Nijmegen, Netherlands exploded on November 8, 2012 due to “steam pipe overpressure,” according to owners GDF Suez. Police told residents to stay inside as steam clouds billowed into the air and ceramic wool littered the streets.
A civilian contractor sustained injuries when a biomass boiler blew up at the Coast Guard Air Station in Sitka, Alaska on October 10, 2012.
A sawdust pile at the 30-megawatt Biomass One facility in White Pine, Oregon burst into flames on September 15, 2012 and again on September 18. A woodchip pile had previously caught fire at the facility on July 4, 2009, likely due to spontaneous combustion, which occurs as woody material decays and heats up.
Dong Energy’s 810 megawatt biomass power facility in Avedore, Denmark experienced a fire on August 12, 2012 that began in its electrical conveyor system and spread to its wood pellet silos. The cause of the fire is unknown.
Three people were injured, including one person suffering severe burns, after a May 11, 2012 wood dust explosion in a wood pellet silo at the Amager Power Station in Copenhagen, Denmark, which burns biomass and coal. The fire was traced to a cleaning method called “bang and clean” which uses small explosions of oxygen and methane to clean boilers, but was used in this case to unblock a plug of wood pellets. Fire returned to the facility again on December 19, 2012.
A pipe explosion blew a hole in the boiler and a six foot hole in a concrete wall at the Blue Lake Power biomass facility in Blue Lake, California in March 2012. The facility’s wood-loading conveyer belt caught fire the year before.
A massive fire raged inside wood pellet silos for RWE’s Tilbury Power Station in Essex, UK, on February 27, 2012. The biomass facility—the largest in the world at 750 megawatts—had just been converted from coal to woody biomass a month earlier. RWE claims no single cause can be attributed to the fire, but suspects that smoldering wood pellets triggered the dust fire.
Two workers were critically burned at an explosion at Nacogdoches Generating Facility in Sacul, Texas on January 31, 2012. The fire was blamed on an electrical explosion, though the exact cause has not been determined. At 100 megawatts, Nacogdoches is the biggest biomass power facility in the US and is now owned by Southern Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company. Due to low demand for its power, the facility has been sitting idle the majority of the time since 2012.
Two workers were killed and nineteen injured during an explosion at the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake, British Columbia in January 2012, which provides material for wood pellets. The explosion was blamed on wood dust from milling beetle-killed trees. The company was fined $1 million by WorkSafe B.C.
A “huge” fire ripped through a storage facility for wood pellets at Port of Tyne, UK on October 31, 2011, the pellets destined for the Drax biomass power facility in Yorkshire. The fire, which took firefighters twelve hours to extinguish, is thought to have been caused by spontaneous combustion following a “chemical reaction” inside the storage unit.
Georgia Biomass‘ wood pellet processing plant in Waycross, Georgia exploded on June 21, 2011. A “good portion” of the 750,000 annual tons of wood pellets from the facility fuel RWE’s Tilbury Power Station [see above photo] in the UK.
The baghouse filter system for Middlebury College’s combined heat and power facility in Middlebury, Vermont caught fire on May 16, 2011.
“Friction” in a wood pellet crushing machine started a three alarm fire on March 1, 2011 that set several floors on fire at Schiller Station, a 50 megawatt biomass power facility in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In February 2007, an “obstructed pipe filled with burning ash” also caused a fire and in 2006 four firefighters suffered first or second degree steam burns from fighting a fire in an ash containment facility on the premises.
Fire closed Covanta Energy’s Onondaga County Resource Recovery Facility, a 39.5 megawatt trash incinerator, on April 2, 2010. The fire started during “routine maintenance of a fabric filter used to filter dust particulates.”
Three workers aged 29, 59, and 62, were killed when a biomass energy facility exploded at Brilon Chipboard Plant in North Rhine-Westfalia, Germany on February 5, 2010. The cause of the deadly explosion at one of Europe’s largest chipboard manufacturing facilities is unknown.
A stack of discarded dock piers caught fire while being chipped for the Piney Power Plant in Clarion, Pennsylvania on July 15, 2009. Two firefighters suffered heat exhaustion while battling the blaze.
A feed hopper at the University of South Carolina’s biomass power facility exploded on June 28, 2009 in a “potentially lethal accident” which propelled a metal panel 60 feet towards a control office, reportedly from a fuel augur rupturing. The $20 million facility, which was built in 2007, was shuttered in 2011 after having been shut down over three dozen times and experiencing three accidents.
A seaman was killed and several other injuries occurred when a ship carrying wood pellets exploded in November 2006 at the Port of Helsingborg, Sweden.
Beaver Wood Energy’s biomass power facility in Livermore Falls, Maine had a fuel pile catch fire lasting over a month in October 2006. The facility has a “long history of air emissions violations” including a High Priority Violation of the Clean Air Act since April 2005.
Fires in a smoldering fuel pile at the Boralex construction and demolition debris incinerator in Athens, Maine in 2002 caused the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to fine the corporation $600,000. The smoke sent several people to the hospital.
A man was killed on a ship carrying wood pellets at the Port of Rotterdam, Netherlands in 2002.
A wood chip pile caught fire from “extreme fermentation” at the McNeil Generating Station in September 1985, a 50 megawatt biomass power facility in Burlington, Vermont.
The proliferation of ethanol facilities has led firefighters to be specifically trained to extinguish ethanol-fueled fires.
Tighter safety regulations have been discussed to help prevent future tragedies at bioenergy facilities, yet industry has often pushed back due to the added expenses.