Maine Woods Biomass Exports proposes Prospect wood chip project

By Katie Fletcher | January 13, 2015

A phytosanitation heat-treatment operation for processing wood chips is proposed for construction in Prospect, Maine, by Searsport-based developer Maine Woods Biomass Exports LLC. The anticipated $20 million project has a time frame of around March 31 to commence with preliminary drawings, architectural design and engineering, and to begin with preliminary permitting, entitlement and zoning work. Project construction is predicted to begin around August of this year, and once completed would provide wood chips to European markets by exporting from the Port of Searsport. Searsport was selected for its rail line, fiber supply and ship loading system.

News about the proposed project is already trickling out because MWBE President Arthur House hopes to employ workers as early as this month from Maine’s forest products industry to start logging and debarking for shipment to a potential buyer, a Turkish manufacturing company.

The reason House is looking to employ workers early is in response to a nearby Verso Paper Corp. paper mill closing its doors. House has the potential to employ laid-off workers now, prior to the wood chip facility’s construction. “I was trying to address the fact that 570 people are laid off right now at Verso, and that I could right now, today, start buying logs, and I could start debarking, chipping and processing logs for future work and future sales to a country that doesn’t require heat-treating just yet,” House said. “I’m just trying to put some people back to work.”

An invitational meeting was held Jan. 6 for the involved project entities. The meeting introduced the project’s interested loggers to the buyers. MWBE’s potential customers also had the opportunity on their visit to meet rail line personnel, port authorities, state authorities, town officials and others important to the success of the project. House hopes, that if supported, the opportunity to employ workers early can move forward, and buyers can redirect their vessel to Searsport earlier than planned.

The proposed wood chip facility, once completed, could potentially use a portion of the fiber originally sourced for the paper mill. Initial construction plans for the facility include one production line of approximately 300,000 metric tons annually of heat-treated wood chips. This material would be sourced within a 50 to 60 mile radius of the central location in Prospect, and then within a similar radius to sidings along the project’s railroad. “Now people who are not within 50 to 60 miles of Prospect, will probably be within 20 to 30 miles of any single siding we would give them to be able to operate at,” House said. “That opens it up to the whole state to be able to provide fiber.”

Phase one of the project is the refurbishment of an existing rail siding and the new construction of a rail siding along the Central Maine and Quebec Railway property boundary, formerly the Lane Sand and Gravel Pit. This rail portion of the project is estimated to cost about $2 million. “We’ll be picking up a lot of the unused fiber from the underutilized logging industry along the rail, who without this rail in their backyard may not have been able to participate in the whole operation,” House said.

Phase two is constructing the wood chip facility. Construction is tentatively slated for August of 2015 with a six to ten month building period. This phase is budgeted for $18 million and could employ 40 to 50 full-time workers on a three-shift basis. The facility uses phytosanitation or fumigation to treat the fiber to European standards. The phytosanitation system design would be done by Thompson Dehydrating Company Inc. “We’re using the only internationally-recognized heat treatment and sanitation or pasteurization process,” House said. “It’s approved by all ship owners and handlers, it’s approved by all of the EU countries, and we’re addressing a need in the EU.”

The third phase of the project contemplates overall project expansion. “My process works,” House said. “I’ve worked on it for three and a half years. I’ve already achieved a USDA approval on my heat-treatment process, and I’ve already shipped heat-treated material to Germany successfully.”

House adds, “We consider Prospect to be the emerging fiber hub to the EU with Searsport becoming the preeminent Port of Origination to Europe.”