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Clear-cut fields, but not answers for wood pileup

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Top, waste logs pile up on the property of Mills Tree Service in Scottsburg. The company doesn’t have trucking rigs equipped to unload wood chips at the local NOVEC biomass plant. / October 17, 2019
Once described as a “wood basket,” Halifax County’s abundance of wood wastes was a drawing card for the South Boston Energy biomass plant when the operation opened in late 2013.

Not far from the project’s aptly-sited address on Plywood Trail, another wood basket of sorts has closed down: the South Boston Convenience Center brush bin.

Shuttered by the town a month ago due to the amount of trash found mixed in with wood and yard debris, the brush disposal dumpster had served as an important outlet for property owners, lawn care providers and tree service firms who needed somewhere to discard excess wood wastes. Since the brush pile closed, wood-related companies have taken to storing debris on their own land or sought out others who have space for loan for deposits.

Meantime, dead trees and branches have piled up on some streets in South Boston, the result of homeowners having no convenient option for disposal, which in turn makes for a bigger job for public works employees who are responsible for keeping streets clean and free of debris.

All of which begs the question: Is the answer to the pileup as simple as burning the waste biomass at the local biomass-burning plant?

The answer, according to plant officials and local wood services providers, is “maybe” — but there are obstacles that stand in the way of such a clean-cut solution.

South Boston Energy is owned by Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative, or NOVEC, and the plant serves the electric cooperative’s largest source of power for customers in Loudoun, Fairfax, Prince William and surrounding counties in populous Northern Virginia.

On a daily basis, the NOVEC plant receives truckloads of wood slash from area logging industries. “Currently, we have 53 loggers who supply us with wood chips,” said Mike Davis, NOVEC’s fuel procurement manager. These loggers deliver from within a 50-mile radius of the biofuel plant. Around 20-30 percent of the loggers come in from North Carolina.

The offloading process is an impressive sight: tractor-trailers loaded with chipped wood wastes drive up to hydraulic lift that grips the specially-outfitted cargo vehicles, lifts them up high and dumps out the wood chips. The plant operates at a scale designed to produce a continuous energy output of 45 megawatts.

Therein lies the problem for smaller operators who would like to become biomass supply providers: the massive scale of the South Boston plant. The “operation is not equipped to handle” loads delivered in smaller vehicles, explained Davis.

One such mid-level operator who invested in equipment to chip up wood wastes for NOVEC has been unable to break into the business.

Five years ago, Brandon Mills, owner of Mills Tree Service in Scottsburg, purchased a disc chipper that operates at a high speed to create fine uniform chips. The disc chipper can make a variety of sizes of chips, “including the size requested by NOVEC,” Mills said.

There’s a problem, however: “We have the chipper and proper insurance, but not the tractor trailer,” said Mills. Several other landscaping businesses in Halifax County own chipping and grinding machines, too, he said. However, they also do not have rigs outfitted for the hydraulic lift system that NOVEC uses to unload chips.

The experience of smaller companies — along with the lack of options for property owners in South Boston and Halifax County who have nowhere to go with the closure of the convenience center brush bin — points to the need for an aggregator firm that can partner with NOVEC to take in excess wood, said Mills.

To be sure, the South Boston Energy plant consumes massive amounts of waste wood in the region.

It’s been a good source of income for local companies and the foundation of local jobs. When the new project was first announced in 2011, then-director of the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority, Mike Sexton, hailed NOVEC as a great fit for us.” “We are in the wood basket,” Sexton said, describing the Halifax County location for the project.

NOVEC burns 1,400 tons of wood chips a day. Two Halifax County logging companies, H&M Logging and Slagle Logging and Chipping, sell their chips to the plant. Kenneth Hodges, owner of H & M Logging, and Bruce Slagle, owner of Slagle Logging and Chipping, said they each “deliver 400 tons a week” of chips.

The chip market pays anywhere from $41-$45 a ton. A tractor trailer can haul 28 tons. During the past winter, the ground was so wet that chips were relatively hard to come. NOVEC increased their buying price to $61 a ton, which has since come down with drier weather.

Before NOVEC built its plant in town, local logging companies would haul chipped wastes to Dominion-owned biomass plants in Hurt and Altavista, and to the Capital Power Roxboro Power Plant. In contrast to those operations, Hodges said, “NOVEC is open 7 to 7.” Dominion Power, on the other hand, may only operate its plants in the area two to three days a week. Plus, NOVEC provides plenty of notice ahead of time if they will be closed for a certain reason, unlike the Dominion plants which provide little or no communication.

“NOVEC is centrally located for most of our work,” said Slagle.

NOVEC has contracts with other logging companies and sawmills, which are large enough to afford the high insurance premiums and maintain the tractor trailers required to unload the wood chips at the South Boston facility.

While the plant swallows up massive amounts of wood wastes, NOVEC aims to offer a sustainable model for biomass energy — which means, ideally, leaving plenty of wood wastes on the ground for the regeneration of woodlands.

Before embarking on the South Boston power project, NOVEC’s Davis researched Halifax County and found “an abundance of wood waste” rotting in the area. By burning slash wood at the plant, rather than leaving to property owners to burn on their own, company officials say they prevent methane from rotted wood or black smoke from opening burning from polluting the environment.

“There is zero control of the burns [in the field],” said Davis.

NOVEC utilizes a high emission control system. The facility has an electro-static precipitator that traps particulates in the exhaust stream and reduces them below a permitted level. The final collected matter, also known as fly ash, is then distributed to local farmers as a liming agent, which can be used to grow the next generation of trees.

The logging industries supported by NOVEC are members of the Virginia SHARP Logger Program or the North Carolina ProLogger Program. Companies that participate in these programs are committed to support safety standards, environmental awareness, and promote sustainable forestry. The training helps ensure that sustainable forestry principles are followed on the vast majority of timber harvest sites in Virginia.

“The regeneration of trees is the upmost importance for the U.S. forest industry,” said Drew Arnn with the Virginia Department of Forestry. The forestry department keeps record of how much timber is harvested and how much is replanted.

The loggers will contact the forestry department, online or through the call center, when they begin working at a new site. The department does an inspection to “verify the location is correct and follow up with a final inspection when the trees are cleared,” said Arnn. Then landowners will receive a letter with the recommendation to replant trees on their land.

Landowners want the best market price for their trees. The chip market is good way to utilize wood wastes so debris is not left onsite. However, after harvesting the timber crops, fields often resemble a stump graveyard.

Between February and April, reseeding the trees is completed by hand-walking the fields. Workers will step over the stumps and keep planting the rows. The regenerated timber is harvested every 10 to 15 years.

“Leaving the stumps helps the nutrients stay in the ground,” said Alvin Hershburger with Slick Rock Lumber located in Nathalie. Fields of razed stumps “an eyesore, but it is healthy.”

“Cutting timber is ugly, but forest will be forest,” added Arnn.

Davis agreed, saying a cut field of timber “looks horrible,” but it is part of the cycle. The stumps are full of dirt and will destroy the blades of the grinding machines if anyone tries to run stumps through to make wood chips.

The harvesting timber business has been growing for the past 20 years. But forming partnerships with small providers who could potentially take on the task of ridding homeowners of downed trees and easing the town and county’s wood disposal issues has yet to happen. “The town creates a small fraction of waste,” but it would be more useful to burn it with environmental-friendly means at NOVEC, Davis said.

“We are scheduling a meeting with NOVEC,” said South Boston town manager Tom Raab, something that Davis, for his part, says he would welcome.

“NOVEC strives to be a good steward of the community and works with smaller contractors if there is a way,” he said.

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