Questions remain on Ecology permitting
By Marcy Stamper
A local project that would test conversion of logging slash and organic waste to biochar has garnered additional support from Washington’s elected officials, with funding included in the proposed Senate and House budgets and an endorsement from the commissioner of public lands.
C6 Forest to Farm, a local nonprofit that plans a one-year pilot project using a portable biochar unit, celebrated the backing as the organization worked on their application for an air-quality permit from the state Department of Ecology.
The project would use a one-of-a-kind pyrolizer that heats biomass (wood chips and logging slash) beyond typical combustion temperatures in a nearly oxygen-free environment. The process prevents the material from burning and eliminates the volatile compounds. The other byproducts are liquid and gas, which would be completely combusted, according to C6.
Biochar is a carbon-rich substance that can act like a sponge when added to soil, helping retain water and nutrients. The ultimate goal is to reduce the risk of extreme wildfire through forest health treatments and removal of small trees that aren’t commercially viable as timber, according to C6.
C6 had been hoping that low emissions — and their expectation that, overall, the process will have a net air-quality benefit by pyrolyzing wood instead of burning it — would mean they wouldn’t need an air-quality permit, C6 Treasurer Gina McCoy said.
But the C6 proposal didn’t fit into any of Ecology’s exemptions, Ryan Vicente, an environmental engineer with Ecology, said last month. Emissions from the pyrolysis unit exceed the threshold that triggers the permit, he said.
An air-quality permit covers emission of standard air pollutants like particulates and carbon monoxide, as well as toxics and carcinogens. The permit would ensure that the equipment is run in a way that eliminates toxic emissions. Ecology could also impose controls such as limited hours of operation to minimize pollutants, Vicente said.
Although biochar pyrolysis uses relatively new technology, Ecology has permitted several similar demonstration projects, Vicente said. The permit application, which includes detailed data and modeling, generally takes less than two months, he said.
C6 has teamed up with a consultant, who recently presented data to Ecology that quantifies the difference between pyrolysis and open burning. That information should expedite the permitting process and address many of Ecology’s questions, McCoy said.
“We’ll get it up and running as soon as we get through the regulatory process,” C6 Executive Director Tom McCoy said. The manufacturer of the pyrolysis unit has already committed to flying from Massachusetts to California to get the unit and haul it to the Methow, he said.
Last week, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said the biochar project could play a critical role in meeting forest health needs. “C6’s desire to turn wildfire fuels in our forests into a product with market value represents the type of innovative approach needed to move forward our forest health, public safety, and rural development goals,” Franz said.
All three state lawmakers who represent the Methow Valley — State Sen. Brad Hawkins and reps. Mike Steele and Keith Goehner (all 12th Dist. Republicans) — have thrown their support behind the biochar research. Last week, Hawkins and Steele announced that both the Senate and House 2021-23 operating budgets include $160,000 for research. The allocation also backs longer-term efforts toward full-size operation of an industrial-sized biochar facility in the Methow Valley.
C6 estimates that transportation, set-up and training will cost $7,500. Leasing, acquiring the woody material, and operating the equipment for a year will cost $80,000, according to the C6 website.
If the project gets the go-ahead, C6 plans to pyrolyze logging slash from a state forest restoration project at Virginia Ridge and from Okanogan County’s stockpile of woody waste material. The unit would be set up for a year at the county’s 22-acre gravel pit on the Twisp-Winthrop Eastside Road.
C6 also needs a temporary-use permit from Okanogan County. Some members of the public told the county that the project wasn’t suited to a residential area.
C6 has been soliciting interest from farmers about using biochar. If the nonprofit isn’t able to produce biochar with its own equipment by the start of the growing season, they hope to find other sources of biochar to provide data for this component of the demonstration project, McCoy said.