Would the railway-tie hysteria of 2010 be different now?

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
February 17, 2018 - 5:00am
Biochar, created by gasifying old tires, biosolids and wood chips.
Biochar, created by gasifying old tires, biosolids and wood chips. Image Credit: City of Lebanon, Tennessee

BACK IN 2010, a man named Kim Sigurdson was the most unpopular man in Kamloops.

Sigurdson had the temerity to propose a solution to a major environmental problem — the accumulation of used, creosote-soaked, railway ties.

Local environmentalists ranted, railed (if you’ll excuse the pun), rallied and protested, local politicians (including MLAs Kevin Krueger and Terry Lake, and Mayor Peter Milobar) got cold feet, and Sigurdson finally threw in the towel and went home to Winnipeg.

Chalk one up for the enviros.

But it was a false victory built on mass hysteria that painted a picture of toxic smoke bellowing into our air shed, with a basic message that we were all gonna die.

The fact was that Sigurdson had a green answer to the railway tie issue, a promise of a provincial development grant, an environmental permit in his pocket and a contract with CP Rail to provide millions of old ties for fuel.

What he had to offer was called gasification, a technology that would super-heat the ties and render the toxins inert, feed energy into the power grid, and emit the equivalent of the exhaust from a single diesel truck each day.

The plant would have been built by his Aboriginal Cogeneration Corporation on Mission Flats with a modest footprint.

Sigurdson was demonized. It was shameful. He was called an opportunist and a liar. Even his ancestry — which stretches back to Louis Riel — was questioned.

It was a classic case of panic ignoring evidence. It was not a proud day for Kamloops, especially when 500 people showed up at a public meeting and shouted him down.

Sigurdson described it as “horrible.”

Truthfully, Sigurdson was his own worst enemy, a fact he now freely acknowledges. He took it for granted that since he’d gone through the proper environmental channels, had the backing of the provincial Liberals (temporarily, anyway), had a proven technology and the land to put it on, he was good to go.

What he neglected to take care of was getting his message to a skeptical public. By the time he realized his mistake, the enviros had run roughshod over his plan.

The ACC project may be long dead, but gasification isn’t. In Sherwood, Saskatchewan, a suburb of Regina, an $80-million biomass power plant is in the works as we speak.

The project will be built by the non-profit First Nations Power Authority. The fuel — 60 per cent railway ties, the rest construction waste and power poles.

Opponents are gearing up for battle, but FNPA appears to have gotten out in front with newspaper ads and open houses explaining the benefits of the technology and assuring transparency.

Elsewhere, gasification is proven and accepted. A town of 32,000 in Tennessee converts old tires, wood chips and biosolids to carbon-rich biochar, a sort of charcoal that’s then used as a soil amendment.

In Gottenburg, Sweden, a gasification plant using logging slash will have the capacity to supply fuel for up to 100,000 cars, as well as electricity and fertilizer.

Friends of the Nicola Valley, a group opposing the spreading of biosolids (sewage sludge) on farm lands as a soil enhancer, urges investigation into gasification of the sludge as an alternative.

Turning waste to energy has yet to be embraced in this part of the world, however. A proposal by Atlantic Power to get rid of railway ties in its biomass-fired generating facility in Williams Lake resulted in a predictable outcry.

Meanwhile, railway ties keep stacking up without a solution, and cities struggle with shrinking landfill space and keep looking for places to put their biosolids.

Kim Sigurdson got out of the gasification business not long after his unfortunate Kamloops experience, but he’s still involved in waste-to-energy projects.

He also puts in a lot of volunteer time helping remote First Nations communities. When I caught up with him yesterday, he was in California enjoying a break from the Winnipeg weather.

Sigurdson still thinks about Kamloops and about what went haywire. “I handled it all wrong,” he told me.

If he was to try it again today, I wonder if he’d get a better reception, if there’d be more reason and less hysteria.

Maybe not.