EVERETT — The Kimberly-Clark pulp and paper mill has been fined $235,000 for allowing a pile of wood chips to smolder and smoke for six months near the Riverside neighborhood.
The fine, issued by the state Department of Ecology, is the largest ever levied on a pulp mill in the state.
“It’s a serious penalty because it was a serious problem,” said Carol Kraege, supervisor of the state Department of Ecology’s industrial section. “This fire burned long enough that it had the potential to really impact people with respiratory problems.”
The fire smoldered from July to December, Kraege said. It became a health threat for 15 days between Sept. 27 and Nov. 15, during a period of stagnant air. On those days the state received numerous complaints from people who live in the Riverside neighborhood. They reported a strong, pervasive odor of wood smoke, she said, like smoke from a campfire.
Mill Manager Chris Isenberg did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment. However, a statement issued by the Ecology Department quoted Isenberg expressing regret over the fire.
“We again apologize to residents in the area who were affected by the smoky odors coming from the fuel pile at the Riverside site,” Isenberg was quoted. “We strive to be a good corporate citizen and once the magnitude of the problem was identified, we acted promptly to eliminate the odors caused by flare-ups in the fuel pile.”
In the press release, Isenberg called the circumstances “unusual” and said the company has taken steps to make sure similarly extensive wood-chip fires don’t happen again.
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 to Snohomish County PUD.
The mill is located on the Everett waterfront at Port Gardner, but the wood chips are stored across town along the Snohomish River just east of E. Grand Avenue.
According to the Ecology Department, such wood chip piles can ignite spontaneously when they start to decompose. Decomposition produces heat, so much so that the chips can burst into flames when exposed to air. The only way to keep such fires from happening is to use front-end loaders to regularly turn the piles.
Last summer, the pile got too big for Kimberly-Clark workers to manage, Kraege said. The boiler that burns the chips broke down, but the flow of wood chips to the site did not slow, creating an unusually large pile.
When a fire started, nothing could be done to put it out, she said. Eventually the boiler was repaired and workers burned through the pile as fast as they could. Only in December did the pile shrink enough for the fire to be extinguished, she said.
In late October, the state issued the company a violation notice, a first step in the process of issuing the record fine.
The company was fined $16,000 last year by the state for a mishap at its waterfront mill that violated air-quality laws and covered much of the city with a potent rotten-egg smell for two days in April.
Kimberly-Clark has about 850 employees in Everett and produces about a million rolls of toilet paper and other paper products a day.
Reporter Lukas Velush: 425-339-3449 or firstname.lastname@example.org.