Biomass and Lumber Companies Consider Bellingham, WA Shipping Port for Exports

– by Samantha Wohlfeil, March 20, 2016, Bellingham Herald

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Photo: Evan Abell

Bellingham’s industrial waterfront could become the new site for two companies interested in exporting logs and dried biomass fuel.

Since fall, DKoram of Aberdeen and Bio-Fibre Manufacturing of Mission, B.C., have had an exclusive negotiating agreement with the Port of Bellingham.

The agreement has given the two companies time to study how successful it could be to ship round logs and biomass made from wood and/or plant waste to Asia from the Bellingham Shipping Terminal.

The two companies can be sure the port won’t talk to competing forest product companies through at least late April, but the port is also talking to potential customers in different industries who are interested in the spot in the meantime, said Dan Stahl, the port’s maritime director.

“(Bio-Fibre) have asked for an extension and we are in dialogue with them about their business plan for Bellingham,” Stahl said. “When this is ready, staff will bring this forward for review by the port commission. … I’d also just say this is a small startup company that is doing some very innovative things and we need to have some patience with them.”

Depending on how the feasibility studies go, the companies could ask the port to consider leasing them about 20 acres stretching from the shipping terminal north into the industrial property formerly home to the Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and tissue mill.

Products to be shipped

Initially, Bio-Fibre had proposed shipping wood pellets, which can be made from dehydrated and compressed chips, bark, pulp logs, and other waste products from mills and logging practices. The pellets are burned for electricity, often in plants that are shifting away from burning coal.

But since that first announcement, the new company has been leaning toward shipping dehydrated biomass chips, not pellets, said Alicia Sebel, sustainability and marketing manager for Bio-Fibre. The materials would come from logging practice residuals and similarly be burned for fuel.

“Currently it will be wood waste from logging, but in the future this technology has the potential … to be able to use things like sugar cane or coffee grounds,” Sebel said. “It has a huge potential to dry any form of biomass.”

The materials are dehydrated using a proprietary chemical process that, for efficiency, uses minimal amounts of chemicals and requires minimal energy input, Sebel said.

“One of the benefits of the process is that the wood is hydrophobic, meaning that after it’s been dried, it doesn’t take water back on, so it doesn’t require extensive infrastructure to store the wood afterward,” Sebel said. “Traditional drying processes are very, very energy intensive.”

Sebel said oftentimes the thing for which biomass gets attacked is when companies say biomass is carbon neutral, and environmentalists counter that it is not.

“We’re talking about the wood that is left over from the logging practices, left on the forest floors, and when that rots, it releases methane,” Sebel said. “They really do want to provide a sustainable alternative to coal, and not just say that. We don’t want it to be a greenwashing thing. We want to say we’ve done the tests and it is a sustainable business model.”

For its part, DKoram planned to look at exporting 35-year-old and older logs that might come from Whatcom, Skagit and Snohomish counties, and Canada. That’s what Steve Grandorff, DKoram general manager, told the port commissioners when they first saw the agreement Nov. 3.

Grandorff did not return messages seeking comment for this article.

Environmentalists concerned

Representatives from environmental groups have asked the port commission not to allow those types of businesses on the waterfront property.

During public comment at the regular commission meeting Tuesday night, March 15, speakers expressed concerns about the impacts of burning wood pellets for fuel and cutting down area trees.

The three commissioners were given copies of a letter signed by members from RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, the North Cascades Audubon Society, Mt. Baker Sierra Club, Communitywise Bellingham, SafeGuard the South Fork, the Northwest Straits Chapter of Surfrider Foundation, 350 Bellingham, 350 Seattle, Western Washington University Students for Renewable Energy, ForestEthics, and Seattle Rising Tide.

“We, the undersigned organizations, know that one key to a healthy and sustainable future is developing clean and renewable sources of power,” the letter states. “Our concerns about the proposed project include its impacts on our localities, forests and wildlife, water, economy, and climate, at extraction and production, from transportation, and when burned for fuel.”

“We urge you to stop this project,” Pam Borso, president of the North Cascades Audubon Society, told the commissioners. “I’m thinking we didn’t acquire this property to trade one dirty wood plant for another.”

Some of those who commented Tuesday asked the port to hold at least one public hearing per cleanup or development project, and asked the staff to solicit tenants “whose business is consistent with and incorporates our communities’ progressive social and environmental values.”

Dylan Sebel, Bio-Fibre CEO, said in an email to The Bellingham Herald on Thursday, “Our company incorporates all the above social and environmental values. Not many companies at this stage in development have dedicated so much time to sustainability and also hiring a sustainability manager. We plan to bring green jobs to Bellingham and will do it through the utmost respect towards the people of Bellingham and its environment.”

Jim Ace, a senior campaigner for ForestEthics, said during Tuesday’s meeting that oftentimes companies will use certifications such as the industry-created Sustainable Forestry Initiative, but he said that specific certification allows for “tremendous impacts to wildlife,” as clear-cuts can lead to erosion and runoff into streams.

“Its intent is to pass off as sustainable some of the most intensive and harmful industrial logging occurring in North America today,” Ace said of the certification. “The average clear-cut approved by SFI is 120 acres. That’s the size of 90 football fields. Now imagine that.”

Alicia Sebel said she understands the environmental concerns, and that Bio-Fibre wants to show it takes those things into consideration.

All of Bio-Fibre’s biomass will need to be either Forest Stewardship Council certified (a certification endorsed by ForestEthics) or certified by the Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification (which ForestEthics lumps with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative).

Other items raised Tuesday included concerns about hampering the cleanup of historic contamination, concerns about the carbon released by burning wood, and the potential for impacts from truck traffic that could bring logs or material to the site.

Sebel said there seems to be confusion about how the operations will affect the community, positively and negatively.

“Simply put, BFM is a biomass drying company. … The drying process itself produces no air emissions and will not be affecting air quality, creating acid rain, etc., as was brought up in the previous meeting,” Sebel wrote in an email. “Most of the raw material (various streams of wood) will be shipped or barged in.”

The company plans to have representatives at a public meeting in April.

“Sustainability is embedded into the core values of BFM. We are focused on providing economic benefits to Bellingham that also focus on environmental and social sustainability,” Sebel wrote. “We look forward to meeting with the community and addressing any concerns with them at that time.”

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