Editorial: We can learn from a close call at Pacific BioEnergy

Maria Church
December 06, 2017
Written by Maria Church
Dec. 6, 2017 - In a matter of days a frightening situation at Pacific BioEnergy turned into a remarkable one with important lessons learned for pellet producers.


This past August at the Prince George, B.C., facility a silo holding 3,500 tonnes of wood pellets began smouldering. The situation was critical. Up to this point efforts to put out fires in pellet silos have been unsuccessful in North America.

But cooler heads prevailed and a co-ordinated effort between the plant’s staff, first responders and FutureMetrics’ John Swaan over the next few days ended in the best possible result – the smouldering was extinguished and the silo was safely emptied. It’s a first in North America, says Swaan, who founded Pacific BioEnergy Corporation in 1994.

Central to the firefighting effort was the injection of nitrogen gas to limit the presence of oxygen in the silo. In a smouldering situation, oxygen is the recipe for an explosion.

Canadian Biomass’ Tamar Atik spoke with Swaan and Pacific BioEnergy’s CEO Don Steele. Read her article about the lessons learned from the successful fire suppression here.

“. . . we’re beginning now to refit and add to our knowledge of our product and how to handle it,” Steele said. “And I think the whole industry is going to learn something from it too.”

As an industry we need to adopt these types of safety lessons – fast. Just a week prior to writing this editorial, an employee was killed at a pellet storage facility in Texas. According to local media, the employee was operating a skidsteer removing pellets from a silo when material fell on him. In June another silo on that site collapsed from a smouldering issue that sparked in April.

Fire incidents at pellet plants in North America and Europe, though uncommon, prompted a research report from Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency’s Henry Persson. The report, titled Silo fires: fire extinguishing and preventive and preparatory measures, was central to Pacific BioEnergy’s strategy. It’s a great example of research leading to action.

The Wood Pellet Association of Canada is taking safety to the next level with its safety committee, chaired by Pinnacle Renewable Energy’s Scott Bax. That committee organized a well-attended event in Prince George a few months back, and regularly hosts workshops.

At WPAC’s AGM and conference this year safety was the subject of three presentations, including the keynote.

“Take the time and energy to address the culture you want to see,” Bax told attendees. “It’s not about making clever decisions or bigger deals, it’s about engaging people.”

Read our coverage from the AGM and conference here.

Whether you’re in the business of wood pellets or other biomass production, safety is the top priority. Determine if you have the most up-to-date safety research and information, and make sure implementation is a focus of day-to-day operations.

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