Despite safety improvements, wood pellet plants still face risk of explosions

The investigation into an explosion this week at a wood pellet plant in Entwistle, Alta. has put the spotlight on a facility that is less than a year old and has touted its use of cutting-edge safety technology.

Entwistle explosion under investigation

Jessi Margaret Balsillie took this photo of the Pinnacle plant near Entwistle shortly after an explosion rocked her house on February 11, 2019. (Jessi Margaret Balsillie)

The investigation into an explosion this week at a wood pellet plant in Entwistle, Alta. has put the spotlight on a facility that is less than a year old and has touted its use of cutting-edge safety technology.

It's still not clear what caused the explosion at the Pinnacle Renewable Energy plant on Monday afternoon. Occupational Health and Safety is investigating. 

A fire at the same plant was reported to OHS last month. No one was injured. OHS also inspected the plant in December and in January after workers complained, and an order was placed on the worksite regarding equipment safety.

A profile of the Entwistle plant published in a recent issue of Wood Bioenergy magazine, highlighted the plant's explosion suppression technology and other steps taken to minimize the chance of explosions.

Wood pellet plants transform sawdust, and other wood waste products, into pellets that can be burned to produce energy.

A lot of wood dust is produced in the process, making the enclosed facilities susceptible to explosions, especially if enough oxygen and heat are added to the environment.

A 2014 report by WorkSafeBC found numerous plants in British Columbia failed to adequately address wood dust concerns. The report was commissioned, in part, after fatal explosions at sawmills in B.C highlighted the need to better manage combustible dust.

Aaron Dale Hofmann took this video of the fire after an explosion at a wood pellet plant in Entwistle, Alta. on Monday. 0:30

"Our industry came up short, for sure," Gordon Murray, executive director of Wood Pellet Association of Canada, told CBC News Tuesday.

"We were not managing the dust properly and so WorkSafe sat us down and pretty much told us that we need to get more serious about managing dust so we put a large focus on that." 

A "cultural shift" resulted after the meeting, Murray said. The association broadened its mandate from being purely focused on trade to also including a safety mandate.

The association formed a safety committee that initially focused on combustible dust, but has since expanded to include other safety areas too, Murray said. 

The association now holds meetings and safety workshops every year, he said.

Murray stressed he doesn't know what caused the explosion at the Pinnacle plant in Entwistle, but said he was surprised to hear it happened.

"It's very rare. Honestly, I can't remember the last one."

There are about 40 wood pellet plants in Canada. About 90 per cent of the wood pellet products produced in Canada are exported, and Murray said exports have increased by about 50 per cent over the last five years. About 10 new plants have come on stream in Canada in the same time period.

The newer wood pellet plants are much bigger than their older counterparts, Murray said. The Entwistle operation, which is expected to eventually be able to produce 400,000 tonnes of product annually, will be among the highest capacity plants in the country. 

"We'd like to think we could get to a state where we have absolutely zero incidents and we're working toward that. But clearly, we haven't gotten there yet."


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