Yet another rejected guest editorial

I’m posting it here and sending a link to Mayor West so no one will be able to say they weren’t warned.

CHESAPEAKE’S COMING WATER CATASTROPHE

Sometimes fishermen who live close to nature see things coming well before those who are in charge, and Chesapeake is facing a catastrophe largely of its own making.

Chesapeake draws its drinking water from the Northwest River near the North Carolina border only a few miles from my home. I am on the river several times each month.

The watershed for the Northwest River is not terribly large, flowing from Southwestern Chesapeake East to the Northwest River Park, then turning South down to Tull’s Bay and the Albemarle Sound. Wind driven water level fluctuations have tended to cause brackish water from the sound to intrude into the lower river, and this is balanced by the fresh water flowing down from the watershed. It has been normal for the lower portion of the river to have short periods of wind driven brackish water intrusions especially after the passage of cold fronts . In the last few years, however, those brackish water intrusions moved farther up the river and are lasting longer. This year, the lower river has been brackish since January, from the NW River Park down. There was no crappie or bream spawn in that part of the river this year, a canary-in-the-coal-mine warning of declining water quality. On July 2nd, the brown, cloudy, brackish water was just over a mile downriver from the Chesapeake water intake facility near the 168 Bypass. It is inevitable that the brackish water will soon threaten our drinking water supply.

So, what happened? Is it Climate Change? Not directly, it is because of climate policy.

A decade ago, the Northwest River watershed was nearly all forested with mixed hardwood lowlands and swamps. These forests trapped rainfall and released it gradually, offsetting the wind driven water fluctuations. Those forests escaped harvest for centuries because the wood was of little value, but in the UK and Europe, complex carbon credit trading schemes created a huge market for renewable biomass in the form of wood pellets. In theory, burning wood pellets is carbon neutral as the CO2 released is recaptured when the trees grow back. Lowland hardwood forests which were untouched since Colonial times have been clear-cut for wood pellets. But the land, having been cleared, has been converted to farmland and subdivisions instead of letting the trees grow back.

Rainfall on lowland forests takes a up to a week to filter down to the river, but rain falling on farmlands and lawns is either absorbed, or is drained into the river, in hours, where it can be swept into the sound by the North winds that follow a frontal passage and replaced by brackish water when the wind changes back to South. The gradual replenishment of the fresh water in the river that protected the upper portion of the river, and the water intake, has been greatly reduced. The ability of the watershed to purify itself has been largely destroyed.

At this point, I don’t know how this damage could be repaired. Even if we had control of the private property that has been cleared, we could not reproduce those lowland forests in our lifetimes. The Northwest River might just have to be written off. I will have to find another place to fish and Chesapeake is going to have to find another source for fresh water.

But what can be salvaged is a lesson. Since the trees are not being regrown, burning wood pellets instead of coal is not going to make a bit of difference to the climate, but creating that false market is rapidly destroying the diverse Southern hardwood forests in Virginia and the Carolinas and the watersheds that depend on them. The environmental costs are massive and irreparable.

Well intentioned policies almost always have unintended consequences. We need to be a lot more careful about considering those consequences before we meddle in the marketplace with feel good policies that do more harm than good.

For now, we need to stop digging the hole deeper. Export of wood pellets or other biomass for failed climate policy must be stopped.

20 thoughts on “Yet another rejected guest editorial

  1. Interesting topic.

    After doing some research I believe that your solution – banning biomass export – is ill-advised.

    It is not scientifically valid to extrapolate from one small sample to a generalization. Your claim that this local problem shows a failure of environmental policy because the trees are not replanted is derived from a local sample that actually is not representative of the industry as a whole. Furthermore your propose solution ignores the fact that a significant portion of wood pellet production is derived from otherwisen uneconomic resources such as sawdust, bark, branches and other by-products of wood industries and from the harvesting of standing dead trees.

    If you are interested I attach a paper that surveys the industry and the impacts of the European policy on OUR forests. It appears from this evidence that the claim that cleared land is then diverted to housing and farms is not typical. Only that we may have local zoning problems.

    It is a long and very technical paper. This is from its conclusion . . .

    “Our findings suggest largely positive trends in timberland conditions; however, the presence of some potentially negative trends suggests that continued monitoring of localized impacts of wood pellet mill operations is important. We emphasize that monitoring must be observant of other localized conditions that can have concurrent and even greater effects than wood pellet manufacturing.”

    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-75403-z

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    1. It is quite true that my own observations are local, but then the NW river watershed IS local.

      Regarding the claim that most of the pellets come from waste and scraps, Georgia Pacific, the largest lumber company in this area, uses 100% of such waste for its own processes, which require power and steam.

      Reading the article you cite, I see some shortcomings. Simply counting trees before and after does not tell us much. replacing a mature lowland hardwood forest with a pulpwood tree farm is not a real replacement, no matter how many trees you count, neither as a measure of habitat diversity nor hydrology.

      Locally, I invite you to drive along Indian Creek Road and see how far the soybean fields go now to the South toward the river I can stand in my boat and look behind my duck blind, a half mile south of the NW River park and see only a narrow band of trees by the river where the hardwood forest used to go back two or more miles. Down on the North Carlonia portion, you can hear the bulldozers tipping stumps on those areas where the land is high enough to farm.

      I see no reason to believe the wood pellet industry is any more carefully regulated anywhere else.

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      1. If you want to keep this a serious discussion then do not misquote me. I most certainly did not “claim that most of the pellets come from waste and scraps.” I stated the simple truth which is that a “significant portion” is derived from otherwise non-economic sources.

        I am not disputing your local observations and comments. I DO dispute leaping from observations in a very narrow and not obviously typical situation to the blanket condemnation of biomass, environmental policy and a call to ban important exports. In that dispute I provided data based evidence that you had lept too far.

        You have found some problems with the data. Okay. The author makes very clear that in spite of the overall picture being positive, there are also negative aspects to be monitored and local variables to consider. Maybe better zoning and protection of mature lowland hardwood forests – where they exist – is called for. We “leftists” are almost always in favor of protecting sensitive and irreplaceable habitats. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. In other places, the economic opportunities of this wood pellet demand leads to profits, jobs and better silviculture over large areas managed forests.

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        1. Whether it is ‘most’ or a ‘significant portion’ in question, if the loggers use all of it in the conversion process, then none of it is left.

          Think of the carbon dioxide released in cutting and transporting the trees to the mill, grinding them to powder and wetting them to make a paste. Then extruding the paste into pellets and cooking the moisture back out to dry the pellets. Then hauling them to a port for a ship to take them the Europe. That’s a lot of diesel, natural gas, and bunker oil burned. Do you think there will be any significant reduction in CO2? Or does it just fuel a carbon trading scheme that is little more than virtue signaling that destroys a diverse ecosystem and at best replaces it with farmed pulpwood.

          NC Sierra Club on wood pellets

          From a legal standpoint, export is the only control point I see. if the market for the hardwoods is there, you can’t stop the landowner from selling it. But since it is an entirely artificial market, you can artificially stop it.

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          1. “Whether it is ‘most’ or a ‘significant portion’ in question, if the loggers use all of it in the conversion process, then none of it is left.”

            It is pointless to argue with someone who will not accept what I have said as being what I have said but insists on putting words in my mouth to rebut. I said “significant” and not “most.” I made that statement after reading some facts in the material I linked to. That material makes clear that the new demand from Europe has shifted the source of raw material for pellets from primarily sawmill sawdust (69% by weight) to a new mix as follows . . .

            “Sawmill residues accounted for about 18% of fibers used in wood pellet manufacturing by 2017. Most fibers (49%) came from residual biomass of little to no commercial value (e.g., bark, logging residues, wood chips, post-consumer wood, unmerchantable wood), and roundwood/pulpwood (20%). The remaining fibers (13%) were sourced from residues of wood product manufacturing.”

            So with respect to your strawman of “clear cut hardwood forests”, I am not going to play. The bulk of wood pellets are not made from such trees. Cutting down such trees to make into pellets may indeed be marginal or even negative from a CO2 point of view but your “solution” is to destroy an industry that usefully converts waste into energy.

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          2. Actually I did.

            And you are not paying attention to what I am writing which is not debating with you about the CO2 balance of harvesting trees to make wood pellets. My emphasis is on all of the use of waste wood,bark, sawdust, limbs and fiber which your “solution” would cripple. Those are a source of free energy which – in the fullness of time – will return their carbon content to the atmosphere whether they are used as fuel or not.

            As an aside, the EEU is working on regulations that would exclude the non-contributing sources that you are highlighting from the carbon program.

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          3. What waste limbs and bark are we talking about?

            Georgia Pacific, which makes dimensional lumber and plywood uses 100% of the waste from cutting trees That is SOP for the lumber industry,

            So, what waste limbs and bark are they using? It isn’t from cutting trees for lumber, that already get used.

            The only waste they can be using is the waste from the hardwood forests they are clear cutting.

            If you don’t cut the trees there is no waste to use.

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          4. “What waste limbs and bark are we talking about?”

            Well, I do not have your vast expertise so I am referring to the waste limbs and bark that every article I have found on the subject by other experts describe as being a significant source of materials that go into wood pellets.

            I have not actually argued with you about the environmental efficacy of clear cutting hardwood forests as a way to help the environment but you keep coming back to that SMALL part of the wood pellet industry. Why? In defense of a DUMB idea that the whole wood pellet industry should be evicerated by banning exports to an important market.

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          5. Think about the question. What waste limbs and bark are we talking about? It’s important.

            If it were the waste from normal logging operations, then no harm done. But we know that the lumber companies like Georgia Pacific are using 100% of that waste themselves.

            So, the waste they are talking about can only be coming from the bottomland hardwoods they are cutting. Those trees have limbs and bark too. The claim that a significant part of the wood pellets comes from waste is a scam, to make it look better, but in reality its all hardwood forest.

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          6. “It’s important.”

            No, it is not.

            Your citing one company that gave up producing wood pellets for sale to using them themselves is another example of unjustifiable extrapolition from a single data point to very general claims and assertions.

            But since you keep citing Georgia-Pacific this is what they have to say . . .

            “Evidence shows that biomass is an environmentally efficient and responsible energy source. For example, in the United States, where twice as much wood is grown than is harvested, carbon dioxide (CO2) storage in forests continues to increase, offsetting about 12 percent of the country’s total CO2 emissions. At GP, we keep thinking about sustainability.”

            https://www.gp.com/news/2019/01/transforming-wood-waste-into-energy-for-our-mills

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  2. Excellent essay. If you want to rework it for publication, may I offer some suggestions?

    Consider this formula that proposal writers use to engineer persuasive arguments that result in sales:

    What does the reader want?
    What do we give them?
    How do we do it?
    What benefit does the reader receive?
    What proves the benefit is real?

    The essay could be strengthened by giving clear, unambiguous answers to each question, in the order in which they appear.

    The first question (What does the reader want?) is probably the hardest to answer. The essay offers several possibilities:

    The reader wants to know what fishermen are seeing on the Northwest River.
    The reader wants to avoid a shortage of drinking water in Chesapeake.
    The reader wants to learn about the economics of unintended consequences as revealed by the wood pellet fuel market.
    The reader wants to preserve or restore natural environments.
    The reader wants to support smart environmental policies.

    The challenge for the writer is to define the reader’s interest accurately and present it unambiguously. I would suggest that the last paragraph of the essay is the paragraph that does this. Try making it the first paragraph.

    The second question (What do we give them?) is also challenging. Again the essay offers some possibilities, but it might help to make an explicit statement. For example:

    “An effective environmental policy takes long time frames into account, considers predictable unintended consequences, and seeks to preserve ecosystems where feasible.”

    The third question is “How do we do it?”

    Here the essay needs to describe specific action:

    Local, state or Federal legislation to pass or revoke.

    Local planning to create or change.

    Notice that the third question builds on the answer the writer produces for the second question. If you’re writing for a newspaper or a magazine, a specific proposal for civic action is the hook that will interest the editor.

    The fourth question (What benefit does the reader receive?) sets up the sale. This is where the fisherman’s experience in the essay is likely to be most powerfully used. Not just current fishermen, but future fishermen.

    The last question (What proves the benefit is real?) needs to use facts or a factually verifiable statement to close the sale. For example, you might mention the volume of wood pellet exports that effective policy might reduce.

    I apologize for being so presumptuous in offering this critique, but I promise you this formula is worth billions of dollars. If you want to publish, it will help you.

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      1. 650 words is more than enough. The challenge is to answer the questions directly and in the order given. It is the questions themselves and their order that creates persuasion. You could reduce the essay to five sentences if you wanted to, although you might have to write two essays to capture everything you want to say.

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  3. Unfortunately, compared to the Susquehanna all else is minor. We could restore every river in Virginia and Maryland to the pristine condition of, oh say, the Dragon Run, and Pennsylvania still is the long pole.

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    1. The NW river runs into the Albemarle, so the Susquehanna which is in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is not a factor.

      However, I would not be surprised if the same thing is happening there.

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  4. Just going to sound off on a couple of things here. I just spent the weekend in NM PA to inter the ashes of my dearly departed mother-in-law. A beautiful ceremony at the Kiffer Hill Cemetery in Forest County (The least populous of PA’s counties) which is almost entirely made up of The Allegheny National Forest.

    My father-in-law worked at a local saw mill for YEARS, driving truck or moving logs around the yard. He would also be called in the middle of the night to stoke the boiler with SAWDUST. Other pieces of scrap wood were set aside and usually sold or given to the locals to use in the wood burning stoves that are prevalent at the homes and hunting/fishing camps that make up a large part of that county.

    So YES, the waste is primarily used by the mill for its own use. I am not aware of any of the local yards transforming waste to pellets, but it could be happening now.

    While driving around the Forest and Warren County roadways, I saw several signs looking to buy standing timber, mostly hardwoods (Walnut and Cherry). However, the majority of the harvested trees in the region come from timber lands managed by the lumber companies where they harvest and replant to maintain supply.

    Luckily, that part of PA is not part of the Chesapeake Watershed. The local waterways flow to the Allegheny River and onward to the Gulf of Mexico. (I don’t need to tell you the geography if you know about Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh). I am aware of the issues with PA river water flowing like a plague in the Chesapeake Watershed. Most of that has to do with farming which is very prevalent in the Susquehanna watershed.

    Pointing fingers is NOT a solution to the problem Don identifies. If it is happening on the Northwest River, it is happening in other places as well.

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    1. No reply from the Pilot. They don’t even give replies unless they are going to publish

      I sent a copy to Mayor West and he forwarded it to the city engineers. Haven’t heard anything since but that’s only been 3 days and I wound expect they will do some checking

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