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November 9, 2013

Ernst Biomass fuel pellent plant is damaged by fire

UNION TOWNSHIP — A Saturday morning fire damaged production equipment at the fuel pellet mill at the Ernst Biomass plant at Ernst Conservation Seeds in Union Township.

It was 8 a.m. when the first of nine area volunteer fire departments were called to the scene at 9006 Mercer Pike, about three miles south of Meadville, Chief Don Grinnell of Vernon Central Volunteer Fire Department, said.

No injuries were reported, but the fire caused about $50,000 in damage to the conveyor system and other equipment at the biomass plant, Grinnell said.

The pellet mill grinds switchgrass, a tall, perennial grass into pellets for use as a fuel source for pellet heating stoves.

Ernst Conservation Seeds specializes in native and naturalized seeds and plant material of eastern North America that are cleaned and tested to U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, according to the company’s website. Ernst supplies seeds, mixes, and bioengineering products for restoration, reclamation, and conservation applications.

Grinnell said the biomass plant’s automatic fire suppression system would have extinguished the fire, if it had started in the mill and not within the conveyor.

“The conveyor is enclosed from bottom to top and runs about 75 feet in length,” Grinnell said. “The fire was inside it and destroyed it.”

The exact cause of the fire isn’t known, but is considered accidental, he said.

“It could have been a bad bearing overheating or something else going wrong with the equipment,” Grinnell said of what may have sparked the fire.

Fuel pellet production had been halted for the day around 5 p.m. Friday, according to Michael Ernst, who oversees the Ernst Biomass project. Ernst discovered the fire around 8 a.m. Saturday.

“We’re thankful the fire departments responded so quickly,” Calvin Ernst, Michael’s father who is president of Ernst Conservation Seeds, said. “This could have been a serious fire. We’re thankful no one was hurt, too.”

There were about 10 employees on the property preparing for work when the fire was discovered.

It’s unknown how long the biomass plant may be out of production because of the loss of the conveyor system, Michael Ernst said.

“We don’t know yet — it might be several weeks,” he said.

There are five full-time employees at the biomass plant and about another eight or nine seed company employees involved with it as well, he said.

“It’s unlikely, but we don’t know,” Ernst said when asked if the firm might have to do temporary layoffs. “It’s disappointing to see this happen because our demand (for pellets) is up.”

It took firefighters about four hours to  extinguish the fire, Grinnell said.

He said one problem was a pit area underneath where the switchgrass is first chopped and put on the conveyor. That area, containing waste material about three to four feet deep, was smoldering and about 10,000 gallons of water had to be used to make sure it was out, Grinnell said.

Vernon Central Volunteer Fire Department was assisted at the scene by Vernon Township, Cochranton, Conneaut Lake, Greenwood Township, Edinboro, West Mead 1 and West Mead 2 volunteer fire departments and Meadville Fire Department and Meadville Area Ambulance Service.

The last fire units returned to service around 12:30 p.m.

Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.

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