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Opposition to Contaminated Rail Ties as Fuel for Generation: The Saga Continues

William J. Andrews
Friday, May 24, 2019

The BCUC on May 15 approved BC Hydro's short-term electricity purchase agreement (EPA) with the operator of the biomass generating plant in Williams Lake. This was entirely expected and has little real-world significance in and of itself (!). But it provides a good opportunity to tell the story of how we got here and what's coming next in the continuing saga of whether a biomass generating plant in Williams Lake will be allowed to burn creosote-contaminated rail ties for power. 

This goes back to 2016 when a group of concerned residents called Rail Ties Be Wise (RTBW) began opposing the company's plan to burn contaminated rail ties as fuel in the Williams Lake biomass facility. The company's long-term EPA with BC Hydro was expiring soon and it wanted a more reliable source of fuel than just clean woodwaste to try to get a new long-term EPA with Hydro. The outraged locals pursued a three-prong strategy: a public/political awareness campaign, an appeal to the Environmental Appeal Board (EAB) of the government's approval of air emissions from burning rail ties, and a complaint to the BCUC that Hydro shouldn't buy electricity from rail ties that are not a "clean and renewable" resource. 

Bringing their BCUC expertise and a provincial perspective to bear, BCSEA and the Sierra Club BC joined RTBW in raising the rail ties electricity issue at the Commission. While the initial complaint was dismissed as premature, BCSEA et al. highlighted the point that if and when BC Hydro brought to the Commission a new long-term EPA with the operator of the Williams Lake biomass plant the groups would argue that Hydro shouldn't be allowed to buy power generated from contaminated rail ties. 

Meanwhile, the appeal at the EAB was dragging on, no rail tie-burning equipment had been installed yet, the company's EPA was about to expire, Hydro was balking at expensive new long-term EPAs for biomass power, and the government and BC Hydro were studying the whole biomass energy situation in terms of the availability of fibre, the costs and the jobs impacts. In that context, Hydro made a short-term "bridging" EPA with the company in order to keep the plant operating until longer-term decisions were made. Crucially for BCSEA et al., the short-term term EPA prohibited burning rail ties, presumably as a result of all the attention on the issue. So, in August 2018, BCSEA et al. supported [link below] Commission approval of the short-term EPA while calling for any future long-term EPA to exclude power from rail ties. 

Commission approval of the short-term EPA seemed imminent in the fall of 2018, when the BCUC suddenly suspended the proceeding to await the results of the government's "comprehensive review" of BC Hydro. The proceeding resumed in 2019 when the government announced its new Biomass Energy Program. BCSEA et al. made a supplementary submission to the Commission in April 2019 [link below] that explains how the Biomass Energy Program will affect the Williams Lake biomass generation plant. In short, the government made a legal requirement that the Commission must approve any long-term EPA that Hydro makes with the operator of the Williams Lake plant (and several other biomass generating plants). The Biomass Energy Program is silent on rail ties being used as fuel, so BCSEA et al. urged BC Hydro to ensure that the upcoming longer-term EPA for power from the Williams Lake biomass facility requires that the fuel be exclusively clean or renewable fuel, i.e., no burning of rail ties. 

Today's (May 15, 2019) approval of the short-term bridging EPA is no surprise, since the government has essentially removed the Commission's decision-making power regarding biomass electrical generation. 

The next "shoe to drop" will be whether a clause prohibiting rail ties as fuel is included in BC Hydro's upcoming long-term EPA with the operator of the Williams Lake biomass generating plant, expected to be announced in June 2019.  If so, mission accomplished. If not, back to the public/political awareness campaign. Incidentally, the EAB ruled in April 2019 that residents' appeal was "partially successful" but the company still has a permit to burn rail ties if it decides to do so. So it's up to BC Hydro to "say no" to buying power generated from contaminated rail ties.

Bill Andrews  (Bill represented BCSEA, SCBC and RTBW in the BCUC proceeding, and represented several of the appellants in the EAB proceeding) 


BCUC Decision (E-12-19)  
BCSEA et al 14 August 2018 argument,  and 23 April 2019 argument 


William J. Andrews, Barrister & Solicitor

1958 Parkside Lane, North Vancouver, BC, V7G 1X5

Phone: (604) 924-0921 Fax: (604) 924-0918 Email: wjandrews@shaw.ca