August 29. 2018 11:02PM

Struggling wood chip market causing Derry brush to pile up

By Ryan Lessard
Union Leader Correspondent

DERRY — At the beginning of the month, the town’s Department of Public Works announced that the brush pile at the transfer station would close until further notice, but reopened it briefly on Aug. 16, 17 and 18 before closing it again.

The town has been struggling to find someone willing to grind up the brush and get rid of it, according to DPW Director Mike Fowler.

A decade ago, the town was paid by contracting companies to grind their brush and cart it off. Fowler said the contractors would pay $5 to $10 per ton of ground brush, and there would be an estimated 250 to 500 tons per shipment.

It was a nominal fee, he said, but it was revenue.

“We won’t see those days again,” Fowler said.

About fours years ago, the market for brush grinding changed. Contractors stopped paying the town to grind their brush, and the town began paying land-clearing companies to come and grind the brush pile at the transfer station.

In the past, the town would grind up the plant debris on a quarterly basis. In recent years, that’s been reduced to twice a year. The town hasn’t been able to grind the brush pile in 2018 until this week.

Fowler said many communities are struggling with accumulating brush piles and yard waste.

“There’s just fewer and fewer places to get rid of it,” he said.

Some communities may even be faced with considering controlled burns, a once-common practice. Fowler doesn’t think it would be a popular proposition in Derry, however, especially with so many residents living near the transfer station.

Fowler said it’s a struggle to get contractors to bid on the grinding project because of the costs involved. This year, the prices the town’s been quoted have been two to three times higher than what Derry paid last year.

Fowler said the town was able to contract with Burl Land Clearing at a reasonable price, and said the company also does brush clearing for neighboring Londonderry.

Part of what makes companies shy away from brush clearing for municipalities, Fowler said, is the risk of damaging their equipment if metal material is hidden in the brush pile by residents who don’t follow the rules.

The larger issue is that there are fewer markets for the low-grade wood chips, partly because biomass plants in the region have closed down.

Procurement forester Hunter Carbee said ground-up brush has traditionally been used to supplement low-grade wood chips for biomass or for yard mulch. He said they used to buy it from multiple communities as a service.

“I think it’s obviously the cost of the end product has gone up,” Carbee said. “And that could be related to the biomass plants.”

Alone, the ground brush wasn’t ideal for biomass burns. The grinding process, which differs from chipping, doesn’t produce the same kind of product and often the brush rots from sitting at a town dump for too long.

While the demand was never strong for ground brush, the number of companies available to grind it has shrunk as the biomass industry has contracted in the last three years, Carbee said.

He said he’s aware of six different wood-clearing companies that have sold off their wood grinders in recent years because they couldn’t make enough money with them. Grinders are more expensive to operate and require specialized operators, he said.

Fowler said he expects the brush pile in Derry to be closed for the next week.