A massive concrete bunker at Timber Products Company has very little to do with the plant's mission of making particle board and plywood, but it will dramatically reduce the amount of air pollutants the plant emits.

A massive concrete bunker at Timber Products Company has very little to do with the plant's mission of making particle board and plywood, but it will dramatically reduce the amount of air pollutants the plant emits.

The vat, which stands 15 feet high, 108 feet long and 32 feet wide, will provide a home for hungry microbes that will consume the exhaust gas produced during particle board manufacturing and devour chemicals that normally would be released into the atmosphere.

"We're going to have a big bug farm that eats the volatile organic compounds," said John Wasniewski, general manager of the plant in north Medford. "They're going to treat them like candy."

Timber Products and two other manufacturers, Sierra Pine and Rogue Valley Plywood, are being required by federal law to install millions of dollars in pollution control equipment to eliminate about 168 tons of the 261 tons of hazardous pollutants they release annually. The substances include wood, glues and other compounds used in manufacturing.

Byproducts of plywood or particle board production include compounds such as methanol, phenol and two known carcinogens, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.

The new federal rules differ from other clean air laws because they set guidelines for so-called "grandfathered" industries that were in operation before new laws took effect. Five other wood products companies in Oregon, including three in the Roseburg area, must also comply with the new rules.

Rogue Valley Plywood in White City has until June 20, 2008 to install the equipment and Sierra Pine and Timber Products, both in Medford, would have until Oct. 1, 2008.

Rogue Valley Plywood should start up its new equipment by the end of the week. Sierra Pine expects to have its new pollution controls operational by Sept. 1.

Timber Products expects to have its bio-filter operating by June 30.

Workers welded the new ducting system Tuesday that will capture chemicals released at every step in the production process. About 90,000 cubic feet of air per minute will flow through the bio-filter and 2,200 gallons of recirculated water a minute will be pumped to assist the process.

A smokestack that now produces mostly steam will be cut off and spliced into the new ducting system that will funnel all fumes to the bio-filter system.

Even the particle board press operation, which turns a mat of wood fibers and glues into boards, will have a negative air flow that will suck up waste air and shunt it through the filter.

On the other side of the plant, the plywood operation will have a new thermal oxidizer that will heat waste air to 1,500 degrees to burn volatile compounds. Some 30,000 cubic feet of air per minute will be pumped through this new filter system, which will use natural gas to generate the heat to vaporize the compounds.

The oxidizer replaces an existing pollution control device at the plant. The waste air coming out of the plywood operation is too hot to use a bio-filter to devour the chemicals.

After the equipment is installed, the company will spend $30,000 to $60,000 setting and fine-tuning the bio-filter and the oxidizer.

Wasniewski said burning natural gas in a thermal oxidizer also creates its own problems, creating greenhouse gases as a byproduct of the incineration process. Those gases might eventually require a different set of pollution control equipment.

"We're going to have a pollution control device in a pollution control device in a pollution control device," he said.

Wasniewski said pollution control devices at his plant have been in the planning stages for about 10 years, since the federal Environmental Protection Agency first came on site to evaluate the process.

Whether the average person will notice the difference in air is up for debate. Wasniewski said he didn't think it would be that noticeable, though there will be a sharp reduction in the volatile compounds.

Even though most of the pollutants will be filtered, Wasniewski said people should still expect to see steam coming out of the smokestacks after the equipment is installed.

Byron Peterson, natural resource specialist with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said the equipment should reduce odors significantly.

"I certainly think it's going to be a lot less," he said.

He said some plants across the country have installed bio-filters for odor control.

Putting an exact quantity on how much pollution will be controlled is difficult, he said, because of the complexity of rules and regulations. In some cases, substances like methanol or formaldehyde will be reduced by about 90 percent in much of the production process, he said.

He said the DEQ will have a better idea how the pollution equipment works after it has collected data on its monitoring equipment.

The wood products companies say the new equipment is just the cost of business that must be done to meet all state and federal obligations.

"We are also obligated to the community to do the things we need to do," said Wasniewski.

But with a sharp downturn in the construction industry and increased competition from overseas, it has been a difficult expenditure to absorb.

"It's not an ideal time to invest $3 million," said Dick Marcoulier, maintenance superintendent at Timber Products.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.