‘Big win for the Harbor’: Leaders celebrate pellet approval

Wood pellet facility estimated at $250 million and 50-60 jobs

After a proposed $250 million wood pellet facility cleared a major hurdle Tuesday by securing air quality permits to operate in Hoquiam, many leaders and residents celebrated a future boon in jobs, tax dollars, private investment and new industry, while others remained wary of the plans.

Hoquiam’s incoming plant is only the second of its kind to be cleared for construction in the Pacific Northwest, representing a frontier for the biomass industry that has flourished in the Southeast.

“We are very excited to have achieved this significant milestone,” said Kim Alexander, vice president of operations for Pacific Northwest Renewable Energy (PNWRE), a Massachusetts-based company embarking on its first project in the Pacific Northwest.

Alexander said construction will begin later this year and will likely take two to two-and-a-half years.

In an email statement on Tuesday, Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay said the new pellet plant fulfills the first phrase of Hoquiam’s mission statement, which commits the city to “improving the quality of life for our citizens by diversifying the industrial base.”

While initial estimates put capital investment at $150 million, more recent estimates from PNWRE put the plant’s cost at $250 million in private investment.

The facility will employ 50-60 people. In addition, construction of the facility will employ about 200 people and stimulate the surrounding area, Shay said.

Shay said the new pellet plant could partially mend the blow that declining industry has delivered to the local economy, including the 2014 shuttering of Grays Harbor Paper, which stripped $500,000 per year from the city’s general fund.

Embarking on its first project in the region, PNWRE’s new facility will cover 40 acres and consist of 12 pellet mills, five storage silos and a conveyor at 411 Moon Island Road, south of state Route 109 near the current Willis Enterprises wood chipping facility and Bowerman Airport.

The plant will produce about 450,000 tons of wood pellets per year and export them overseas.

Plans were abandoned for a potash facility at the same site four years ago, when BHP, a global mining company, pulled its permit application citing continued concern from local stakeholder groups and anticipated regulatory issues. The development would have brought $400 million in private investment and about the same number of jobs as the approved pellet plant.

That same year, the Port of Grays Harbor began discussions with PNWRE about the 40-acre site, which is the upland portion of the larger Terminal 3 area that includes a dock and conveyor to load outgoing ships through the Willis operation. Grays Harbor Port Executive Director Leonard Barnes, who touted the plant’s “far-reaching” economic benefits for Grays Harbor, said it will fit well at Terminal 3 because of the history of forest products at the site — a former Rayonier operation — and the neighboring facility already established in the industry.

As a wood source, the plant uses slash from commercial logging and mill residuals, as well as feedstock, or trees — though these may only come from certified sustainable sources, according to PNWRE.

The finished pellets will move on a conveyor to the dock and be sent on ships to international markets, where they’re burned for energy.

“PNWRE had been looking in the PNW for a location that was very close to abundant supplies of biomass that could also be located at a deep-water port,” said Alexander. “Being located next to an experienced operator in the wood products market with a great reputation like Willis Enterprises was a very big plus for us.”

Despite the economic upside, many environmental advocates in Grays Harbor and elsewhere aren’t happy about the incoming plant. Arthur Grunbaum, president of environmental action group Friends of Grays Harbor, called for a more detailed evaluation of how the plant would hinder environmental systems and impact nearby Hoquiam schools and the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge, each which lie within one mile.

Grunbaum was “disappointed” that the city of Hoquiam’s environmental review did not trigger an Environmental Impact Statement.

“Everybody wants economic improvement on the Harbor,” Grunbaum said, citing past proposals for local industry projects. “They all have impacts the proponents don’t point out. It takes an independent group, such as the public, to look at them.”

As part of the recent air permit process, regulators with the Olympic Region Clean Air Agency took five months to review a chorus of public comments raising concerns about the proposal, from the permit application itself to general industry practices.

The Olympic Region Clean Air Agency can only address comments pertaining to air quality.

While enacting some permit changes, the agency assured commenters it would hold PNWRE accountable to an emissions estimate about 30 times smaller than similarly sized plants in the American Southeast — a difference attributable to the type of pine wood used on the other side of the country.

National groups pushed back against the Hoquiam plant, and one approved for Longview, to slow the wood biomass industry as it creeps into the Northwest, citing instances of environmental violations and increased logging rates in areas near plants.

Others welcome pellet producers. Cindy Mitchell, a spokesperson for the Washington Forest Products Association, told The Daily World in January that new pellet plants could be a key link in the wood products supply chain, creating demand for forest slash that would otherwise burn in wildfires.

The pellets are an energy source for overseas utilities. As opposed to fossil fuels, biomass is renewable because plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow; however, according to a 2023 University of North Carolina paper, burning wood releases approximately as much CO2 as coal.

Greater Grays Harbor Inc., the regional chamber of commerce, helped PNWRE secure a $200,000 Department of Commerce grant in 2023 aimed to create manufacturing jobs. Interim Executive Director Jon Martin called the plant’s approval a “big win for the Harbor” and said the group is interested in further opportunities with biofuel, which is a “hot topic.”

“It brings jobs to the Harbor, but also helps support our timber industry, which has had some struggles, and deals with potential sustainable energy,” he said.

Others in Hoquiam said the pellet plant’s approval gives a sense of economic stability. Resident Jasmine Maine commended Hoquiam staff for moving the pellet plant through the process and said she believes it will snowball into more local investments and vitality.

“Grays Harbor has a grit and work ethic that deserves this chance and will do well by it,” Maine said. “I’ve always been a firm believer that while we have a rich history our best times are in front of us.”

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.