Ruling stymies Potlatch plan to turn garbage into energy

Potlatch Corp. hoped to lower energy costs at its Lewiston pulp mill by every year burning up to 100,000 tons of recycled garbage, such as shredded plastic packaging, old carpets and creosote-treated railroad ties.

Company officials described the plan as forward-thinking: The oil-based products would burn hot, creating steam to turn turbines for power generation. In addition to reducing Potlatch’s utility bill, the proposal would cut down on landfill waste.

But the company’s “alternative fuels” permit application is on hold, following a June court ruling that affects thousands of industrial boilers and incinerators nationwide. A federal judge struck down the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules governing hazardous air pollutants, requiring the agency to write tougher rules.

The ruling was a victory for the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups, who said the rules didn’t live up to federal Clean Air Act standards for airborne pollution. In practical terms, the ruling freezes Potlatch’s permit application, which was scheduled to go out for public comment this summer.

“We’ll have to wait,” said Matt Van Vleet, company spokesman. “Everything is basically on hold at this point.”

While the delay disappointed company officials, who’ve been working on the permit since last year, environmental activist Mark Solomon applauded the ruling. Solomon, who lives in Moscow, Idaho, said he’s skeptical of Potlatch’s claims that the air pollution produced by burning the recycled trash will fall within the company’s current permit limits.

Potlatch’s Lewiston complex is one of the largest air polluters in the state, discharging more than 1 million pounds of emissions annually, according to EPA’s 2005 Toxics Release Inventory.

“They’re emitting toxics into a very dicey air shed,” according to Solomon, who said cooler air above the Snake River canyon traps pollutants near the canyon’s floor.

Potlatch could still pursue an alternative fuels permit by demonstrating that the emissions would meet the Idaho’s air quality rules, said Bill Rogers, a permit coordinator at Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality.

Company officials are reviewing that option.

“We put a lot of time, effort and expense into developing the original (application),” Van Vleet said. “At this time, we’re evaluating what it would take to redo the application under state regulation.”

Boilers generate about 65 percent of the power used at Potlatch’s Lewiston complex, which includes the pulp mill, a lumber mill and offices. Hog fuel – bark and other wood waste – is the company’s preferred method of fueling the boiler, according to Van Vleet. Wood waste is clean-burning and utilizes scraps from Potlatch’s sawmills and from other lumber producers, he said.

To supplement the hog fuel, Potlatch burns natural gas in the boilers and buys electricity. Rising costs for both hog fuel and natural gas prompted the company to look to alternative fuel sources, according the application permit.

Based on a study by Lewis Clark Recyclers, Potlatch anticipates that up to 100,000 tons of recycled trash would be available to burn in the boiler annually. The company would select material with high heat output, such as the shredded plastic packaging, carpet waste, paper and wood furniture.

Turpentine, tall oil soap and glycerin are also included in the permit application. Turpentine and tall oil are byproducts of the pulp and paper-making process.

They’re sometimes sold to make resins and solvents, but they could be burned for energy when prices are low, Van Vleet said.

Glycerin, a byproduct of biodiesel refining, could be an option if a plant is ever built in the region.

DEQ’s Rogers said the cement plant in Inkom, Idaho, already burns tires in its kiln as a supplement fuel. Van Vleet said that turning recycled trash into energy is common in Europe.

“Fuel is one of our greatest costs,” he said.

“We’re trying to think really far out into the future, to what would make us competitive in the long run.”

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