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Downed trees from ice storm will be turned into energy

Joanna Richards
Kids play amid downed tree limbs in Watertown after last month's ice storm.

All the power lines have been fixed after last month’s ice storm, and the crystal coatings have melted off the trees, but there’s still a persistent sign of the damage: lots of downed limbs.

Yards in the northern half of Jefferson County are full of tangled branches, sunk in the snow. Extricating them is going to be a long process, but there’s a plan in the works to give them a new life as fuel.

That’s because the county’s trash is treasure to a new biomass-burning power plant on Fort Drum. In the past, all that tree debris would have gone into landfills or been turned into mulch at taxpayer expense.

But the opening of ReEnergy Holdings’ Black River facility last summer means that now, all that material has value.

Jim Lawrence is Jefferson County’s highway superintendent. He’s coordinating an effort to collect the waste so the plant can gobble it up as fuel.

“It’s very helpful for them, and it’s helpful for us,” he said. “And this might be an effort that we continue on for years to come, as far as when we want to dispose of the brush and limbs that we see yearly."

ReEnergy’s plant burns wood chips that usually come from the discarded remnants of the lumber industry. But the company says there’s as much as 1,000 tons of tree litter from the storm throughout the region - enough to power 7,000 homes for a day.

As Lawrence works with towns and villages in Jefferson County to consolidate the material for pickup, ReEnergy is working with the city of Watertown on a plan for its waste, and hopes to take in St. Lawrence County’s, too.

Lawrence says the deal is a win-win-win - for the environment, the power plant, and the county, which will be paid for the material.

“All we have to do is put the storm debris in one location. They’ll pay for the expense of grinding it up and taking it to their plant. And that’s a big savings on the towns and villages, especially on the labor piece of it,” he said.

Lawrence estimates the overall cost of disposal will be reduced by about two-thirds, $100,000 to $200,000 using old disposal methods, to more like $30,000 to $60,000 by working with the plant.

All that tree litter will still be around for a while. Lawrence says most of the municipalities are setting a deadline of July 1 for people to drag the limbs to the street for pickup.