Nearly two years after Canfor shut down its sawmill in Vavenby, B.C., a respected First Nations-owned resource company is exploring the possibility of a new waste-to-energy facility to take its place.
“We started thinking, is there something that we should look into that might create a different environment, a different buzz?” said Al Chorney, CEO of Simpcw Resources Group. “And with forestry taking it on the chin, decade after decade, one has to look at the region through a different lens.”
About 187 direct jobs were lost when Canfor closed its Vavenby sawmill in 2019, along with about twice as many associated jobs, said Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell, whose council presides over the 700-member community of Vavenby as well.
“The whole logging economy in the valley suffered after Canfor went away,” Blackwell said.
Vavenby is located in the Thompson Valley, about 110 km north of Kamloops. The territory of Simpcw First Nation, which owns Simpcw Resources, spans 5 million hectares, from just north of Kamloops, to east of Jasper and northwest to Kakwa Park.
“The ultimate goal is to serve the needs of the Thompson Valley communities, while the net benefit is providing a renewable energy source,” said Chorney of the waste conversion concept.
The concept, as currently envisioned, would divert plastics, construction and demolition debris, municipal solid waste, sewage sludge, and agricultural and forestry materials, among other things, from the landfill and convert it to clean thermal and electrical energy.
Simpcw Resources, which oversees forestry, aggregates, pipeline maintenance, construction and more for Simpcw First Nation, didn’t originally intend to pursue a major new business. Initially, the goal was to find a replacement for Canfor, a foundational customer to anchor the industrial park, and draw other tenants.
But attracting a new medium, or large, business to the valley was difficult.
“One of the challenges that the region's faced is that there are limitations as to how one might develop a new industry or create that environment that actually serves to attract new industry,” Chorney said.
So the company considered the situation from another perspective. If they couldn’t attract outside interest, maybe they’d have to prove the opportunity themselves; maybe Simpcw Resources would be the anchor tenant.
The company chose a ‘clean energy’ business concept that would convert municipal, industrial, and other waste into power, wastewater, thermal heat, and natural gas.
“We're looking at diverting those potential landfill materials into something that really generates a long lasting benefit,” said Chorney.
With the help of an engineering firm, Simpcw Resources considered processes proven elsewhere to determine which would best serve the type of waste currently in the valley, he said.
Next, Simpcw Resources will apply to the provincial government for funding of a feasibility study. Both the Clearwater and Valemount councils have expressed support for the study.
Valemount Mayor Owen Torgerson is interested, both for its landfill waste diversion and heat generation potential.
“You see examples of this in South Korea, Sweden; they're not reinventing the wheel here,” Torgerson said.
“From a geothermal standpoint, there are over 50 global examples of how waste heat can be better utilized,” said Torgerson, whose own administration is seeking Federal Government funding for a deep bore-hole geothermal heating project.
Could a waste management facility in the Thompson Valley provide some part of a solution for his community?
Torgerson isn’t sure, but he’s hopeful.
Valemount waste is trucked three hours to Prince George for disposal. Vavenby is half that distance away.
Many questions remain, but still, it’s exciting, he said.
“Anything that doesn't have to go on a truck and has value, versus, a cost and a dumping fee, that does change the economics of even simple garbage here,” said Clearwater Mayor Blackwell, whose own community’s refuse is hauled 1.5 hours away, twice a week.
Even so, it’s too early to draw any conclusions, Blackwell said.
“The evolution of the project can take you in a completely different direction, but you need to crack the door open and start looking at it. That's where they're at right now,” he said.
“The Simpcw have a pretty good track record with their resources company in terms of responsibility and being a good corporate citizen in the valley,” said Kamloops-North Thompson MLA Peter Milobar. “So, them trying to advance and look at something to see if it's even feasible makes sense.”
Typically, any type of project like this would require a fair amount of study, Milobar said. “Given how entrepreneurial the resources company seems to be, it doesn't surprise me that they'd be looking at other opportunities to try to bring more economic benefit to their people, as well as, the whole valley.”
There's a growing global trend to change the landfill mindset and shift the paradigm a little bit through technology, said Chorney.
“We're no experts yet,” he said, “but we hope to learn enough to determine whether we're on the right track or not.”