Opponents of the widespread practice of burning wood waste at logging sites across British Columbia say the government is backpedalling on a commitment to suppress the controversial practice by subjecting it to the carbon tax.
When George Heyman became Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy in July 2017, Premier John Horgan instructed him to extend the carbon tax to so-called “slash-pile burning” operations. The thinking was that the tax would force the industry to alter course.
But nearly three years into the government’s mandate, the tax has not been extended and Heyman’s ministry won’t say if and when it will be.
“Government is committed to fighting carbon pollution in a way that puts people first and supports the transition to a low-carbon economy,” the ministry said in an emailed response to questions from The Narwhal.
“We are committed to working directly with industry to develop a strategy to strike a balance between industrial competitiveness and our goal of cutting carbon emissions.”
Yet some say the province’s delay is creating a cascade of problems as slash-pile emissions inflate B.C.’s climate impacts, heighten air quality concerns and lead to industrial practices that see valuable wood products going up in smoke.
‘Terrible conditions of smoke’
Len Vanderstar, a resident of Smithers who regularly witnesses the emissions from slash-pile burning, said prior to the last provincial election he and other members of a local group called Voices for Good Air pushed local MLA and now Forests Minister Doug Donaldson to back the idea of applying the carbon tax to those emissions.
“It’s because of Doug Donaldson that that became part of the mandate letter,” Vanderstar said. But he’s now convinced the government won’t do what it said it would.
“They have no intentions of following what they promised or what was in the mandate letter. What they are doing is they are skirting around doing something that will make COFI (the Council of Forest Industries) happy,” Vanderstar told The Narwhal, adding that’s bad news for residents in the Bulkley valley.
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“We have lots of people in Smithers that have vacated the valley and moved elsewhere because of air quality issues, asthma issues,” Vanderstar said, adding that the intense smoke from slash-burning that typically begins in late September packs an economic wallop as well.
Based on a calculation of 50 cubic metres of wood burned per slash pile, Vanderstar estimates that about one million cubic metres of wood per year are torched in slash-burning operations in the region. And all that smoke is bad news for fishing and hunting enthusiasts who flock to the region each autumn.
“They come up here, and the whole backcountry, it’s terrible conditions of smoke.”
Ray Chipeniuk, has lived in the Smithers area for 22 years, and said the amount of wood being burned each year is mind-boggling.
In 2017, he prepared a report for Voices for Good Air that was later delivered to Donaldson. “In just one airshed, the Bulkley Valley-Lakes District airshed, the number of slash piles burnt is 20,000. In the province as a whole, the number of slash piles burnt may be as much as 400,000,” Chipeniuk wrote.
One of the justifications given for such burning is that it reduces the hazard of future wildfires. Under B.C.’s Wildfire Act, waste wood piles are considered a hazard, and typically the way logging companies choose to deal with the hazard is by burning the piles. But Chipeniuk said there’s little evidence to back up the claim that slash-burning is a wildfire preventive.
“Almost no research beyond modelling studies supports the idea that burning slash reduces wildfire for more than a few years,” he said.
Meanwhile, huge numbers of trees are being logged high up on the hillsides and mountains above Chipeniuk’s home in the Bulkley Valley and many of them end up being burned, even though they could be turned into forest products instead. Proof of that is not far from where Chipeniuk lives.
A mill built for small, imperfect logs
A 40-minute drive north from Chipeniuk’s home on the Yellowhead Highway takes visitors past portions of the winding, steelhead-rich Bulkley River, fields of grazing cattle and the thickly forested hills and mountains that hem the valley.
You can follow that valley all the way to the entrance of the Seaton Forest Products mill near the community of Wit’set.
Andy Thompson built the mill with equipment salvaged from another mill he was a partner at in Fort St. James. But neither the partnership or the mill lasted long.
“It was going really nicely until . . . a cold minus-20-degree day and one of my employees left their gloves on a heater to dry out and that caused the whole thing to burn down,” Thompson recalls.
Four years after the fire, the Seaton Forest Products mill opened in the summer of 2016. It currently employs 24 people, 80 per cent of which are either members of the Gitxsan or Wet’suwet’en First Nations.
Thompson started the mill with the intention of processing the small and imperfect logs that the major forestry companies operating in the region — Canfor and West Fraser — clearly weren’t interested in. “I knew there was a lot of wood that was being wasted,” he told The Narwhal. “I’d been out to a couple of logging sites and seen mounds and mounds of these logs burnt.”
Between them, Canfor and West Fraser control most of the logging in the interior of the province and operate some of the largest sawmills in the world.
The larger mills owned by the companies feed on a steady diet of logs that are a specific diameter and length and as free of “checks” (industry jargon for splits and cracks) as possible.
But logs with checks and other defects are perfectly usable, Thompson said, if companies take the time to figure out how to work with them.
Logs processed at the Seaton mill are generally cut twice in a simple and elegant operation. Two rounded sides of the logs are cut off on one pass through the mill. Then the logs are flipped 90 degrees and the other two rounded sides are cut off, leaving large squared pieces of wood, known in the industry as cants.
The cants are then bundled together and shipped mostly to small mill owners in China where they are re-cut into smaller finished pieces.
Thompson said there is value in the wood that is being treated as waste at these larger logging operations.
Much of this wood, Thompson said, is being pushed into piles and burned along with the slash rather than being trucked to the bigger mills, like the Pacific Inland Resources (PIR) mill in Smithers, owned by West Fraser.
Thompson said he went into the Smithers mill and asked to work out a deal.
“I went into PIR — the West Fraser office — and I said: ‘Look, listen … I know you guys are getting nothing for that stuff … I’ll give you thirty bucks a metre for it. You know, it will help lower your logging costs. Everybody will be happy.’ ”
The deal hashed out in the office that day allowed Thompson to gain access to droves of sub-alpine trees that West Fraser typically logged and left behind to later be burned because of the higher number of checks in the trees. Instead, the rejected trees were trucked to his mill and processed.
Melana Bazil, Gitxsan member and employee at Seaton since 2017, said like many in the Wit’set region, she is not a fan of clear-cut logging and its associated wood waste and fires.
“I don’t believe in clear-cutting at all. But I know the logging industry is not going to be lasting forever and so I’m really grateful to be a part of the clean-up,” Bazil said, adding that she feels she is helping to set an environmental example by making a product that would otherwise be going up in smoke.
“I think it’s important that we take those logs and process [them] here.”
Saving wood, only to burn it
Since Thompson and West Fraser reached that initial agreement, West Fraser became a minority partner in a new wood pellet-making venture in Smithers called Pinnacle Renewable Energy.
The pellet plant, which started operating in November of 2018, now uses some of the logs and debris from logging sites that otherwise was burned — although the plant produces a product destined for burning in stoves and furnaces.
Wood pellet stoves and furnaces are marketed as “environmentally friendly” because they produce very little if any smoke and because their fuel source — wood — is allegedly “carbon neutral.”
But critics say it is a “disaster” to rapidly expand wood-burning, given the century or longer that it takes the forests those pellets came from to regrow and to store large amounts of carbon once again.
Thompson, along with Kirsteen Laing, a retired professional forester who helps run Seaton’s operations, say the company would be facing significant financial hardship due to the increased competition and escalating costs of getting logs to their mill were it not for a provincial government program unveiled in 2016 by former B.C. premier Christy Clark and run by the Forest Enhancement Society.
The program — set up with an initial infusion of $85 million and a follow-up instalment of $150 million — helps fund various projects to renew forests damaged by wildfires and insect attacks and to promote projects that foster healthier forests where more carbon is either being captured or not emitted through burning.
Since the creation of the program, numerous reforestation projects have received funding as well as specific businesses being paid money from the fund to offset the costs of hauling wood into their facilities.
The Seaton mill, designed to prevent wood waste from being burned on cutblocks, received $2.56 million under the program.
But the Pinnacle/West Fraser pellet plant partnership also received $1.2 million to turn that wood waste into products destined to be burned.
A band aid, not a solution
The Forest Enhancement Society claims on its webpage that such investments have resulted in a combined 3.5 million cubic metres of wood to date (one cubic metre is roughly the size of one telephone pole) being processed, rather than being burned across B.C.
While the program has assisted Seaton and others, virtually all of its funds are now allocated and are slated to be spent over the next few years.
For that reason, both Thompson and Laing say it is not a long-term solution to the slash-burning problem.
“It’s a band-aid. The government’s giving us money that they don’t need to give us if they would just think outside the box,” Thompson said.
“It’s also just on a three-year term,” Laing added. “Once that term’s done, well, we’re back in the same position.”
Both Thompson and Laing say they would rather see the provincial government give the company a licence that would require all the unwanted logs that companies are currently logging and burning to be assigned to their mill.
They also note that giving their mill such a licence would still mean that the pellet industry got wood as well. But rather than pellet makers turning whole trees directly into pellets — a practice that has raised alarm bells in the environmental community — the pellet plant would use the wood chips and waste from the Seaton mill and other mills to make the pellets instead.
“I think it would be a shame, if the logs that we have coming into our yard, and the product that we can produce from our yard, would just get chipped for pellets,” Laing said.
Vanderstar is not a fan of the Forest Enhancement Society either. He said the Society has been music to the forest industry’s ears because rather than the companies that do the slash-burning being taxed for the damaging pollution they cause, it is taxpayers who foot the bill.
A far better solution, he said, is the carbon tax the government promised to implement. Or, if the government balks at calling it a tax, then a surcharge, Vanderstar said. The companies causing the pollution face penalties for doing so and “eventually everybody stops burning slash because now you’ve formed a secondary industry.”
Chipeniuk calculates the industry in the Smithers area burned nearly 1.4 million tons of wood waste in 2017 and that province-wide that year at least 10 million tonnes of wood waste was burned.
“Why is there so little public consciousness of such atrocious greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere?” Chipeniuk wrote in a paper he hand-delivered to Donaldson.
According to the most recent data available from the province, the estimated greenhouse gas emissions generated at slash-burning operations across B.C. were just under 4 million tonnes in 2017.
But the emissions are not included in the province’s — or the country’s — official emissions tally.
Had those been included in the official tally, B.C.’s emissions would have been more than six per cent higher, according to the inventory report’s figures. However, both Chipeniuk and Vanderstar believe the actual total figure is far higher than is reflected in government reports.
An analysis of provincial data by Sierra Club BC noted that emissions from slash-pile burning, reported at about eight megatonnes annually (the equivalent of more than 1.7 million vehicles on the road for a year) mysteriously disappeared from the B.C. greenhouse gas inventory in 2017. The province simply stated they were “under review.”
A clear-cut problem
Vanderstar said there are many reasons why the amount of waste left behind and later burned at logging sites is getting worse, not better — particularly in his neck of the woods.
Higher elevation forests don’t have the same number of desirable trees for sawmills, so more trees must be logged to get the required volumes. That means more waste.
The region also used to have two pulp mills — one in Kitimat, the other in Prince Rupert. But those mills closed long ago, and with their closure wood waste levels climbed.
And in portions of the northwest, like the Terrace area, few sawmills now operate. That means a lot of log exports and a lot more waste left behind as only the best logs end up in the containers bound for China and other overseas markets.
Ultimately, Vanderstar said the slash-burning problem won’t be solved unless there’s a fundamental shift in how the region’s forests are logged.
“Our first priority should be … really focusing on what we need to leave behind in the forest to ensure its resiliency and its health and its biodiversity and its hydrological integrity,” Vanderstar said.
“They ought not to be clear-cutting.”
The Narwhal tried twice to speak directly with Donaldson, but on both occasions was told that the minister’s schedule did not permit time for an interview.
Update May 17, 2020 5:17 pm PST: This article was update to change a previous reference of 45 degrees to a reference of 90 degrees in a description of how the Seaton mill processes small logs. Because geometry!