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The tale of Downie’s massive wood waste pile

The Downie Timber wood waste pile towers over the surrounding buildings – note the pick-up truck near the middle of the picture – but manager Alan Smythe aims to have it gone by the end of the year. - Alex Cooper/Revelstoke Times Review
The Downie Timber wood waste pile towers over the surrounding buildings – note the pick-up truck near the middle of the picture – but manager Alan Smythe aims to have it gone by the end of the year.
— image credit: Alex Cooper/Revelstoke Times Review

It grew slowly. When the economy was slow, there wasn't much to it.

Then business picked up. Production doubled, and it got bigger and bigger.

It wasn't hugely noticeable at first, but it crept outwards and upwards, eventually towering over everything around it.

People started talking about it. "What's up with it?” they asked. “Are we in danger? Will it devour the town?"

"It" being the wood waste pile at Downie Timber that seemingly exploded in size this winter. It could be that I wasn't paying enough attention, or that I don't wander the greenbelt in winter, but when the snow melted, the pile revealed itself as this towering, amorphous mass.

"It's probably the biggest structure in town," joked a friend.

Probably not, said Alan Smythe, the manager of Downie Timber, when I mentioned that comment to him, but he did acknowledge that people were asking him about it, and were concerned.

I met Smythe and Revelstoke Fire Chief Rob Girard in Centennial Park late last month to talk about the "pile." We stood at the edge of the park where we had a good view of the mill’s log yard, with the wood waste towering above the stacks of logs.

It had actually gotten smaller by 300 truck loads in the past month, Smythe told us. He spoke of the pile in truck loads, not knowing exactly how much mass was sitting there. At its peak, there was about 1,000 truck loads of waste, he estimated. Now it was down to 700.

"Some of that's gone to as far away as Minneapolis, throughout Alberta, Kamloops, Golden, farmers," he said. "There's lots of demand for the product now that the weather has dried up quite a bit."

How did the pile get so big in the first place?

The problems go back to 2007, when the B.C. Ministry of the Environment outlawed wood burners at mills throughout the province. Suddenly, mills could no longer just toss all their waste into the fire — they had to find a way to make use of it.

"Nobody put any thought into what are we going to do with the product," said Smythe.

Some of Downie's waste — really only a small fraction — is used for the district energy system run by the Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation. The rest is shipped off to pulp mills, pellet plants, cogeneration plants, farmers and whoever else might need it.

For a time it wasn't a huge problem. During the economic slowdown at the end of last decade, Downie was down to one shift and produced much less wood waste a result.

In recent years though, production has picked up and Downie has been running two shifts. About 100,000 tons of waste is produced annually.

Last winter, the wood waste market just wasn't there, and poor road conditions hampered shipping. "Over-production and not enough takeaway," Smythe said.

And so the pile grew and grew. Fortunately, with the onset of spring, demand has increased and so the pile is getting smaller as trucks cart the waste away. Smythe said his goal it to keep shipping it away until it's gone. He hopes the last of it will be out of the yard by the fall.

The mass of wood waste has an economic impact on Downie. The mill has to pay to have it shipped away, though Smythe wouldn't say how much. "The cost of transportation to get that product to the market is many times what the product is worth," he said. "Right now it's like dust. It's something that you deal with and it's going to cost you a lot of money, but you put the effort in to making it happen."

He expects the market to pick up next year when a number of pellet plants go online. Then, there will be more demand for the waste. "If I had that pile next year, it would have some real value because there would be people willing to pay a lot of money to get it," he said, adding his intention is to make it disappear, even if it costs Downie money.

"We don't want to sit on it, we don't want to make it bigger," he said. "Rob and I would rather go for a beer than stand out here and talk about the pile."

What about the fire risk?

Rob Girard, the fire chief, was with us to talk about the safety aspect of the pile. After all, one of the questions people have asked is, “Is it dangerous?”

He didn’t play down the risk of the wood pile, nor did he hype it up.

He said the fire department meets regularly with Downie to talk about the wood pile and try to mitigate the hazard.

“One of the things we did last year when the pile was large, I suggested to Downie to hire a fire specialist to come in and review the pile,” said Girard.

Downie did that, and the specialist produced a report. One of his recommendations was for Downie to move the pile in order to loosen it up.

“In doing that we made the pile twice as big because you take a pile that’s compressed — some of it was like peat moss, it was so composted — you shake it all up, you move it over, you cool it off,” said Smyth. “I think that was the best thing we did.”

The specialist looked at things like where and when the pile was mostly likely to catch fire, and what to do if it did catch fire. “We’ve given every possible scenario a look to how we approach it,” said Girard.

He said the fire department has the capacity to tackle an all out blaze on the pile.

One recent Sunday morning, part of the pile actually did catch fire, said Girard. “What the consultant said was smother it. Put more material on it, sit back, and then pull it apart and start adding water.”

Surprisingly, he said the pile could even be smouldering somewhere deep inside. There would be no clear visual signs of that happening, but Downie personnel monitor the pile and check gas readings around vents in the pile it to see if there are any indicators of fire.

“It’s not like you guys keep throwing it on there and we’re up there on the hill thinking nothing’s happening,” said Girard. “They’re here to work with us and we’re here to work with them. It’s always been concerning for us. Even at the small stages it was concerning, and it’s concerning today.”

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