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Paper mill 'biochar' may help filter Port water

Test underway for PT Paper by-product to help meet Port's environmental runoff needs

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Paper mill's biochar

“Totes” filled with biochar filters are against this Port of Port Townsend building. Roof runoff is filtered this way before it goes to the Port’s stormwater system. Pictured are (from left) Port Maintenance Manager Larry Aase, engineer and entrepreneur Francesco Tortorici and Al Cairns, Port environmental compliance officer. Photo by Scott Wilson

How’s this for recycling?

Biochar, a by-product of Port Townsend Paper Corp’s combustion process that otherwise might go to landfills, is washed and used to assemble industrial-size water filters installed at the Port of Port Townsend Boat Haven. There, the filters demonstrate that they can remove more than 99 percent of the zinc and 95 percent of copper that otherwise might be streamed into Port Townsend Bay through stormwater runoff.

The project, still in a pilot stage, has been more successful than its proponents imagined. And it’s quite possible, according to engineer and entrepreneur Francesco Tortorici of Port Townsend, that it could spawn an industry here that manufactures cleansing units for large enterprises throughout the Puget Sound region – all of them using the PT Paper recycled biochar.

Tortorici, owner of Jofran Enterprises, has worked as an engineering and project management consultant for more than 30 years. He said he’s always been interested in renewables and recycling material for environmental cleanup. At a May, 2013 lunch with the Energy Action Group, the idea of using Port Townsend Paper biochar to create filters was raised.

“I’ve been like the dog with the bone” ever since, said Tortorici. He first contacted PT Paper President Roger Hagan, then new on the job but who was immediately supportive. The mill donated the initial biochar and the labor to wash it so it could be used as filter material.

“The mill has been an unbelievable partner in this process,” said Tortorici.

METALS IN WATER

The Port of Port Townsend strives to minimize the amount of pollution, and especially heavy metals, that travel from the boatyard to boat haven to the bay via stormwater runoff. Since 2011, the Port has noted that state Department of Ecology benchmarks for limiting pollution runoff have been exceeded several times for both copper and zinc, according to a document prepared by port officials. Continued problems could result in reconfiguration and repair of the stormwater filtration system at a cost of up to $200,000.

But the biochar filtration system has the potential to change that, by capturing almost all of the zinc and copper particles from metal rooftops before they even get to the underground filtration system.

Discussions with the Port accelerated when Al Cairns was hired as the Port’s environmental compliance manager in 2013. While there were still bureaucratic hurdles to overcome, Cairns and Larry Aase, Port maintenance manager, dove in to get the work done.

Cairns, a Quilcene resident, joined the Port after working for seven years as Jefferson County’s Solid Waste coordinator. He wrote a grant for $50,000 in state funds to finance preliminary work, part of a $253,796 total project cost. Of that, $153,800 comes from the Port (mostly in-kind) with other contributions coming from PT Paper and Oregon State University, which has funded the salary of Myles Gray, an expert in biochar water treatment. The system uses filtration technology developed by John Miedema, founder of BioLogical Carbon, LLC. Pacific Northwest Pollution Resource Center gave a small grant for testing media blends at the Port, including biochar.

POROUS CARBON

Biochar is a porous carbon material that absorbs toxins that escape traditional sand filtration methods. It has similar properties to activated carbon, which is already being used in contaminant remediation. At PT Paper, biochar is created when biomass fuel, such as bark and tree limbs, is burned in one of the boilers to make steam used in the pulp and paper making process. Ordinarily, PT Paper would feed that biochar back into the boiler and burn it again as fuel. However, the mill has instead processed and donated the material to the initial research as well as the Port’s project.

“Any time we can direct mill byproducts to a beneficial reuse, it is a win for everyone,” said mill President Hagan. “This project is made even more important because of the potential it represents to find an affordable means of mitigating an environmental concern across our state and beyond.”

The Port’s project, Cairns wrote, would be the first in the state to “employ biochar-based filtration media as the cornerstone of a comprehensive site stormwater management approach.”

Aase and his crew built the filtration tanks and added piping to port-owned metal buildings to divert almost all rooftop rainwater into a single tank per building.

The filtration system can be seen at several locations around Port buildings today – two stacked cube-shaped containers (called “totes”) that filter water before the runoff goes into the Port’s underground stormwater system.

A total of 20 totes are being built and seven of them have been installed. The project is still in a testing mode, with removal of metals being measured as the project installs more and more filters.

“It’s a win-win-win situation,” said Tortorici.

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