After delay, PA pellet producers deemed essential workforce

By Anna Simet | March 26, 2020

Despite immediate guidance from the U.S. Department of Homeland and Security and U.S. Department of Labor recognizing forest product manufacturing sites as an essential critical infrastructure workforce, Pennsylvania wood pellet producers, along with other wood-processing operations in the state, were temporarily forced to shut down.

On March 19, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the closure of all nonessential businesses to aid in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, and at the time, wood-processing operations were not on the state’s list of companies permitted to work as life-sustaining businesses.  On March 21, however, operations including paper mills, sawmills, and loggers were added, followed by wood pellet producers. “They figured it out, but it took a while for them to realize the forestry sector is critical,” said Bruce Lisle, president of 125,000-ton-per-year mill Energex Corp., based in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania. “We had to go through an exception process,” he said. “It started with paper mills and loggers, then sawmills got on the list. We’re part of that chain, as many of us use their residues.”

The Energex location in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, continued production uninterrupted, Lisle said, as the province specifically mentioned pellet manufacturers on its initial list of critical infrastructure. “Here, there is no standard SIC (Standard Industrial Classification) code for wood pellet producers, and that’s the problem,” he said.

Now back manufacturing pellet heating fuel for homes and businesses, Energex Inc.—recently acquired by Lignetics, the largest residential wood pellet manufacturer in the U.S.—and all other facilities owned by Lignetics are taking extensive COVID-19 precautions, Lisle said. He added that he is 48 hours away from completing a two-week, self-quarantine, which he began after being notified that attendees of an industry conference he recently attended tested positive for the virus.

“We’re meeting daily on the issue with Lignetics senior leadership team, and we’re adhering to protocol in regard to social distancing, cleaning and sanitizing,” Lisle said. “We’re going through the plant every day from the scale house to the bathrooms and control rooms—anywhere people are—and very thoroughly cleaning. We’re taking this extremely seriously.”

Pennsylvania is home to eight operating wood pellet production facilities with a collective annual capacity of nearly 368,000 tons. The average Northeast wood pellet production facility directly employs approximately 20 people.