Saskatchewan·CBC Investigates

Facility planned for GTH would burn chemically-soaked railway ties to produce electricity

The reeve of the RM of Sherwood says ratepayers are worried about the potential negative health effects of a power plant proposed for Regina's Global Transportation Hub.

Neighbours concerned about possible environmental effects, says RM of Sherwood

The First Nations Power Authority is proposing a project that would turn millions of old railway ties into power. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

The reeve of the RM of Sherwood says ratepayers are worried about the potential negative health effects of a power plant proposed for Regina's Global Transportation Hub.

The facility would generate power by burning creosote-soaked railway ties. Most railway ties are treated with creosote: an effective preservative made up of a wide range of chemicals. It poses potential human health consequences when touched, ingested or inhaled.

In August, the First Nations Power Authority (FNPA) signalled its intentions to build an $80-million biomass power plant at the GTH, through a public notice in the newspaper announcing an open house. At that open house, the organization promised a safe, clean, renewable energy project that follows all of the rules.​
This is what the proposed Biomass facility would look like, according to a power point presentation prepared by the First Nations Power Authority. (First Nations Power Authority)

The organization declined an interview, but a source familiar with the project says approximately 60 per cent of that power would be generated by incinerating old railway ties — about 350,000 of them every year. The rest would be produced by burning construction waste and power poles.

In an email to CBC, a spokesperson for the GTH wrote "the development of a biomass power facility is an exciting project for the GTH and province."

Creosote raises alarm

Professor John Grace, a former Canada Research Chair in Clean Energy Processes at the University of British Columbia, called creosote "carcinogenic" and said "whenever you have creosote, then people are going to worry about it."

He said creosote contains polyaromatic hydrocarbons and "these are things you don't want to mess with. You don't want to get them on your skin. They tend to be quite caustic … You don't want to breathe them, certainly, and you don't want to ingest them because they do contain nasty substances."
Professor John Grace is a former Canada Research Chair in Clean Energy Processes at the University of British Columbia.

Sherwood Reeve Jeff Poissant said neighbours of the proposed facility have raised concerns with him.

"The ratepayers in the area, they're obviously expressing their concerns about the safety and the health of a project such as this," he said.

They're "obviously concerned about emissions living in the proximity of it with young children," he said.

Poissant has spoken with FNPA officials but he's still not satisfied.

"They assured that its clean that the emissions are neutralized but we still want to see a more broad scale environment assessment of it," he said.
Jeff Poissant, reeve of the rural municipality of Sherwood, say ratepayers are concerned about the potential health consequences of the proposed power plant. (CBC)

FNPA says the project would be cleaner than government requires

FNPA is a non-profit with a goal of helping First Nations get into the power business.

The authority's literature says the facility would produce six to eight MW of electricity, which would be sold to SaskPower. It says the project would be a boon for Regina's economy, adding 60 direct and indirect jobs when up and running.

The FNPA's newspaper notice assures the public "the project will feature provisions for safe and dust free fuel management, water management, air quality, noise abatement and emission controls."

An FNPA PowerPoint presentation, provided to the RM, highlights many of the company's plans to mitigate potential environmental risk.

It says the project "will use best available technology to control emissions," and the project would come in "well below environmental emission standards."

Grace said FNPA seems to be sending all the right signals about its technical plans, but he said it's not possible to eliminate all risks.

"You're dealing with science and engineering, which have certain safety risks and also inherent uncertainties," Grace said. "And therefore, as good as you are technically, you're taking a certain degree of risk, which may be very small but it's certainly not zero."

Because of that, Grace argues locating a facility like this on the edge of a major city isn't ideal.

"Normally you'd like to locate it as well away from people as you can."

A source familiar with the project said the GTH is a great location because it has access to a local workforce, room for storage and direct access to rail, which is how the rail ties will be moved.
The biomass power plant is proposed to be built in the GTH on the western edge of Regina.

But that same source said Indigenous people wouldn't get involved in promoting a facility that was bad for "mother earth."

The company's PowerPoint presentation shows that FNPA is aware it will have to work hard to convince the public this project is safe.

The presentation says engaging with the community will be "critical to the success of the project." The company says "all feedback will be given full consideration" and there will be a "fully transparent project development process."

Railway tie projects have drawn protest in B.C.

Two British Columbia-based power projects involving railway ties have faced significant public opposition on similar grounds to the concerns raised about the proposed GTH project.

A project proposed for Kamloops was scrapped in 2010 after hundreds of people protested the planned facility.

In September 2016, the B.C. government approved an air permit amendment that would allow Atlantic Power Corporation's Biomass plant in Williams Lake to start using railway ties as up to 50 per cent of its wood fuel.

However, a local group of environmentalists has appealed the decision of the province.

"They say 'Oh yeah, the stack will be clean and it will be burning so hot that most of the toxins will be burned up,'" said Sage Birchwater, who's involved with the advocacy group Rail Ties Be Wise. "But most isn't all. And we live here and Atlantic Power is based in Boston. So we figured we had to protect our living space."
Sage Birchwater is an environmentalist from Williams Lake, BC who's concerned about a power plant in his city that is planning to generate power by incinerating rail ties. (Caitlin Press)

Lots of hoops to jump through

The source familiar with the GTH project said it is at least two years away from shovels in the ground and there are many hoops to jump through.

The FNPA has started the conversation with SaskPower, but there's no formal power purchase agreement in place.

Saskatchewan environment officials have been made aware of the proposal, but in a written statement the ministry says "our environmental assessment and Stewardship Branch has not yet received a technical proposal for the project."

However, the official added, "if done correctly, the concept of using old rail ties for biomass power generation has merit."

In addition to those approvals, FNPA will have to find a willing First Nation capable of leading the project — and it would have to secure the necessary financing.

The project won't require sign-off from the city of Regina, even though the project is proposed to be built within city limits, because the GTH is a separate administrative zone, set up by the provincial government, which has its own approval processes.

A spokesperson from the office of Regina Mayor Michael Fougere said he was unaware of the proposal, though some city staff did attend FNPA's open house.

"The GTH is subject to its own approval processes and has no obligation to provide information to or seek approval from the city for development on its grounds," an official in the mayor's office wrote.

In addition, property taxes collected from the facility would go into GTH coffers, not to the City of Regina.


Geoff Leo

Senior Investigative Journalist

Geoff Leo is a Michener Award nominated investigative journalist and a Canadian Screen Award winning documentary producer and director. He has been covering Saskatchewan stories since 2001. Email Geoff at