Fears hanging in the air over wood dust

Compacted wood fibre offloading at Methil Docks, involving SITA UK and Forth Ports.
Compacted wood fibre offloading at Methil Docks, involving SITA UK and Forth Ports.

More than one year on, residents in a Methil street are still being plagued by clouds of dust from an ongoing operation at the nearby docks.

Depending on wind direction, properties, gardens, footpaths and cars in the South Grove area are occasionally covered by a film of dust from the large-scale offloading of compressed wood fibre across the road.

Boats belonging to members of Methil Boat Club are similarly blighted if the wind is blowing the opposite way – from the west – and owners fear their vessels may be severely damaged.

The operation – which, it’s thought, may continue regularly for around 20 years – involves large quantities of the shredded wood being shipped to Methil by recyling specialist SITA UK and offloaded on its behalf by Forth Ports.

The material is transported by lorry to RWE Innogy’s biomass plant in Markinch – the biggest wood-burning biomass facility in Britain – to provide heat and electricity to the neighbouring Tullis Russell paper mill.

In 2012, SITA UK signed a £50 million contract to supply at least half the 400,000 tonnes per year of waste wood feedstock required by the facility.

While the aim is to use the wood as an alternative to fossil fuels in the creation of electricity, residents are concerned about the ironic effect it’s having on the local environment.

At present, ships are spending a couple of days a week at Methil Docks and the compacted wood is being dampened by water spray before transportation.

Forth Ports and SITA UK apologised to the community last year when large clouds of the dust – resembling a fine mixture of sand and sawdust – enveloped the street.

The dampening was apparently intended to ease the problem but residents say it’s not enough, as the wood is still at the mercy of the wind.

South Grove resident Maureen McBride said: “There are days we have sat out here this summer with all the windows closed, because the dust gets in. It just depends on the wind.

“They have tried with the water pumps but it’s not good enough – wind can take stuff anywhere.”

Other householders believe the dust could be a potential health hazard – however, Forth Ports and SITA UK have stated it is not dangerous.

Boat owner Peter Ross (73), of Aberhill, whose 27-foot craft ‘Evelyn’ is moored at Methil, said he was worried about the health implications of the dust, while fellow members of Methil Boat Club were concerned about the dust getting into their vessels’ air vents and had contacted the Scottish Environmental Protections Agency (SEPA).

A spokesman for Forth Ports, owner of the port of Methil, said: “We are aware of ongoing concerns expressed by local residents and have recently undertaken an air quality monitoring analysis, as well as a review of our operational procedures, which have resulted in a number of changes.

“These include relocating the operation further away from residential properties and reducing the potential for dust spread by transferring cargo direct from the vessel on to road transport, which results in less movement of the material.

“We continue to monitor the situation at Methil and direct feedback from local residents is a valuable part of this process, as it enables us to evaluate the effectiveness of the measures we have put in place.”

A SEPA spokesman said it was aware of issues with the waste wood dust and was in contact with the relevant organisations.

SITA UK – which maintained the shredded wood was not hazardous – had registered an exemption, under the Waste Management Licensing (Scotland) Regulations 2011, for the Methil Docks site, which permitted the operator to store up to 1000 tonnes of waste wood for a maximum of 12 months, pending recovery elsewhere.

“SEPA understands the quantity of waste wood being stored at the site has reduced recently,” said the spokesman. “However, some waste wood is still intermittently being stored under the existing exemption.”