Burning wood waste riles neighbors

EVERETT — An open-air stockpile of shredded wood waste that Kimberly-Clark uses as fuel to generate steam and electricity is smoldering again.

The pile that sits near a bend in the Snohomish River east of I-5 was the scene of a wood chip fire that smoldered for six months last year, sending potentially harmful smoke and strong odors into homes that sit on a bluff above the river.

That fire triggered $165,000 in fines from the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and Washington state Department of Ecology, which Kimberly-Clark agreed to pay as part of a settlement with the government regulators in March.

After a reprieve during the spring and summer, Kristi Kramer, who lives on E. Grand Avenue near the pile in the Riverside Neighborhood, said smoke and strong odors returned in late October.

“Here they haven’t had the fuel on site for more than a few months, and they’re having issues,” said Kramer, who also said her health has suffered because of the fires. “I think they’ve proven that with a plan and without a plan, they can’t seem to manage the pile.”

Kimberly-Clark has taken several steps to prevent major flare-ups at its wood chip pile, said Robert Waddle, environmental manager for the giant tissue-maker’s Everett pulp mill.

It is not uncommon for wood chip piles to ignite spontaneously when they start to decompose. Decomposition produces heat, so much so that the chips can burst into flames when exposed to air, or smolder several feet beneath the surface.

“The Riverside Neighborhood, and rightfully so, is hyper-sensitive to the issue,” Waddle said. “What went unnoticed five years ago will not go unnoticed now and we recognize that.”

Company officials plan to meet with a fire control engineer next week and continue to work with Everett fire officials to come up with a new operating plan, which could include more on-site fire hydrants, better roads around the pile and special equipment that could probe into a pile to extinguish a slow-burning fire.

People are present at the site eight hours a day on weekdays and it is monitored through security cameras on weekends, Waddle said.

Kimberly-Clark burns wood chips — also known as hog fuel — to generate steam used to make electricity. It uses the electricity to make paper products and sells some of the energy to Snohomish County PUD.

The mill is located on the Everett waterfront at Port Gardner, but the wood chips are stored across town on the river.

Brian Johnson, who lives near the pile, said he has noticed odor from the pile become more intense recently. He said fine wood particulates floating up from the piles settle on his cars.

“I wonder what’s going to happen down the road,” he said.

Larry Altose, spokesman for the Department of Ecology, said the state environmental agency will investigate.

“In view of the fact that this problem has happened once before we would take this problem very seriously,” he said. “Once the episode is addressed, we’ll take a look to see if there is any follow-up action necessary. That would be a great disappointment for us to see if we have a smolder problem return.”

Reporter David Chircop: 425-339-3429 or dchircop@heraldnet.com.

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