A new plant that will turn wheat straw into pulp under construction in Eastern Washington is expected to open later this year.
The $184 million Columbia Pulp plant in Starbuck, about 22 miles outside Dayton, began construction in August. CEO John Begley expects production to begin in the mid-fall.
The goal is to produce 140,000 tons of wheat pulp per year.
Begley said the state and Department of Ecology wanted to address field burning and air pollution. Those ideas inspired the plant, he said, which has been in the works for more than 20 years.
Burning isn’t as widespread a practice as it used to be, but permits for 1 million acres were issued in the state last year, Begley said.
Begley said wheat farmers generate 4 million tons of wheat straw each year within 70 miles of the plant’s site. The plant expects to use 250,000 tons each year.
The mill uses a sulfur-free process.
The mill won’t discharge anything, Begley said.
“Everything we bring in will go out as a product,” he said.
The plant’s process was developed by several University of Washington professors.
According to Columbia Pulp, its pulping process uses less chemicals, energy and water than conventional pulping. The process is “conducted at atmospheric conditions and is ‘gentler’ on raw material,” according to the company’s website, resulting in a “significant” competitive advantage regarding cost, product quality and environmental impact.
The process produces pulp and a “co-product,” a mixture of lignin and carbohydrates that results when separating cellulose from the straw. The fiber produced is very similar to wood fiber, so it will take some pressure off trees and forests, Begley said.
The pulp is a hard wood substitute. It will be used in molded fiber products for cups, dishes and clamshell materials, Begley said.
The co-product is primarily used in dust abatement and de-icing on roads and fertilizer.
Begley said the global pulp marketplace is “huge.” He expects most of the plant’s products to be sold in the Pacific Northwest.
A separate company, Columbia Straw, in Dayton, will buy the straw from farmers. It’s set up totally to supply the plant, Begley said. Farmers don’t have to make changes to sell the straw. It would come in in traditional bale forms, Begley said.
Whether removing the straw has an impact to the soil is a “constant debate,” Begley said. The plant has looked at the issue, working with several consultants, he said.
Removing the straw has the smallest impact in moderate density lands, Begley said. In heavy-density and light-density areas, farmers are better off leaving the straw.
The plant will provide another income stream for growers, Begley said.
Those farmers who have their straw custom-removed may not profit as much as growers who use their own equipment, said Jennie Dickinson, manager of the Port of Columbia in Dayton.
“Regardless, they’ll get some sort of value out of what used to be considered waste,” Dickinson said.
Columbia Pulp first met with farmers before they even started the process, Dickinson said. The plant has “widespread support,” she said.
“There are some purists who believe taking all that residue out of the field is a mistake,” she said. “But that’s OK – people can continue to farm in the way they think is best. There’s plenty of straw.”