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Fire in the hole!

June 13, 2010 Written by Heather Hager
The North American biomass industry is exploding. Literally. For April 2010, a quick search of the Internet uncovered three reports of wood dust-related fires in that month alone. A Massachusetts pellet plant had a wood dust fire—its second since January; a Pennsylvania cabinetmaker had a sawdust explosion—its fourth fire in seven years; and a Maine paper plant had a bark and wood dust fire—its third fire since December 2009. According to a presentation by Aon Reed Stenhouse, an insurance broker and risk management firm, 77 wood-related dust explosions and fires were reported in the news between 2003 and the start of 2010. That’s almost one per month. And those are only the ones that made the news. Are the majority of these incidents due to willful negligence, or is it inexperience and a lack of recommendations and best practices on the part of the biomass industry?

It’s not just wood pellet plants that are going up in flames. Hog piles burn, dust from pulp chips burns or explodes, equipment produces shorts or sparks that ignite sawdust, and dust from pellets explodes during large bulk handling.

In addition to potential employee injury and fatality, these incidents destroy property and inventory and result in downtime that affects the company’s bottom line. The numerous explosions and fires are also making it increasingly difficult for biomass facilities to get reasonable, if any, insurance coverage.

A case in point is the Canadian wood pellet industry. Our wood pellet producers are starting to feel the repercussions of fires and explosions across North America, with insurance premiums escalating, insurers becoming reluctant to include wood pellet plants in their portfolios, and refusal of insurance for at least one Canadian pellet plant. All pellet plants are being lumped together as high risk, regardless of investments in fire prevention, and all are suffering for problems experienced by a few plants.

This has prompted a response from the Wood Pellet Association of Canada (WPAC). At its March meeting in Ottawa, it reported its attempts to work with insurers in developing best practices that would allow producers to control risk to levels that would satisfy insurance providers. Best practices include: housekeeping standards to minimize dust build-up; functioning fire safety and prevention measures/systems; self-inspection programs and record keeping; preventive maintenance programs; third-party auditing and certification of fire/explosion risk management systems; and industry-wide monitoring, evaluation, and annual program revision.

To be effective, such a program would require all pellet industry members to participate. It might involve different premiums for different levels of risk mitigation.

Others in the wood products industry are not immune to these issues. WPAC is taking steps to improve fire safety and insurance matters for its members. The rest of the biomass industry should lend support in developing and implementing effective best practices or risk being left behind in the dust.

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