Marcellus Shale gas boom means more ... mulch?




Atop a mountain of wood chips, Eric Vaccarello pointed down at the newest arrival to his sprawling plant. A dump truck, stacked full with junked wooden pallets, rolled up to one of the several chippers on site. 

“All of that,” said Mr. Vaccarallo, gesturing toward the spraying wood chips, “will be made into a product.” 

Mr. Vaccarello has worked for two decades to develop more convenient ways to reuse wood waste such as trees, downed branches or other trashed products that would otherwise be burned or left to rot. In the late 1990s, he started two companies: one that specializes in land clearing, and one that cuts up and recycles wood waste.

But it’s been in the last five years — during the boom in Marcellus Shale gas production — that his business has taken off. His employees have gone from 25 to 100. His processing site in North Fayette has expanded to fill all 35 acres of land he owns alongside Route 22. And the mounds of clay-red, light brown and black mulch have swelled so much he drives his pickup truck to the top for fun.

The impact of increased natural gas production in the region has rippled out to local businesses such as restaurants, gas stations and rental homes. 

Mr. Vaccarello’s ventures — which include the two companies, Land Clearing Specialists Inc. and Wood Waste Recycling, as well as a recent start-up, Absolute Reclamation Services — are positioned for a windfall because they can help advance gas production while promoting environmentally friendly practices, he said.

For starters, he provides services to cover the three steps necessary to recycle a patch of land. Trees and shrubbery cleared by the land clearing specialists feed the wood waste recycling business, which then provides the site remediation service with mulch and other products to reclaim the land.

He employs this process to prepare drilling sites for clients such as Consol Energy, Range Resources and MarkWest Energy Partners Inc. — his three biggest clients in the gas industry. Last week at the Pittsburgh International Airport, one of his teams had begun clearing way for another drilling pad for Consol, while another seeded and mulched at a finished site.

About half of the 600 total jobs finished by his land clearing company in the last year came from the gas industry and mostly involved drilling sites that are usually about 15 acres and take two weeks to clear. 

But as he also works with railroad companies to make way for additional tracks and with housing companies to clear for more homes, Mr. Vaccarello contends that he has seen firsthand how shale development has reached into supporting industries. 

One side effect is that, as Marcellus Shale gas sites proliferate, so does mulch for landscape supply companies. His plant processes 200,000 cubic yards of mulch a year. One cubic yard can fill a 300-square-foot garden with a one-inch layer. 

Wood Waste Recycling sells to “pretty much all the local landscaping supply companies,” Mr. Vaccarello said, including McMurray-based Federouch Landscaping Services and Canonsburg-based A&S Landscaping Inc. The mulch in many playgrounds in Western Pennsylvania, he said, is composed of trees cut down to make way for drilling sites. 

When he got into the land clearing business, Mr. Vaccarello said he was among the first to experiment with aging, grinding and dyeing the wood he chopped down. 

“You had people just dumping the stuff over the hill, and it’s just horrible, horrible for the environment,” he said. “I’d always scratch my head and go, ‘There’s got to be a use for all this.’”

According to the EPA, land developers and individual citizens at that time were primarily polluting the air by burning the trees or unnecessarily filling up the landfills. Recovered wood can be used for mulch, fuel, compost, animal bedding or used in manufactured products such as particleboard. 

As of March 2014, the EPA estimated there are more than 500 wood processing facilities across the country. 

Donning a Consol cap, Mr. Vaccarello last week checked in on a small crew working to cut and shred trees on a muddy 35-acre site near Settler’s Cabin Park for a future housing development. He said land-clearing revenue has tripled in five years, but declined to disclose financial details. 

“You have to spend a lot of money to make money,” he said, pointing out the equipment he’s accumulated over the years. 

The tree cutter cleanly saws trees in seconds, and the skidder carries them in its mechanical arm to the drum chipper. The drum chipper effortlessly shreds the trees and shoots them into the back of the loading truck.

“That’s a half million dollars,” he said, pointing to the chipper. “We have four of those.”

Daniel Moore: dmoore@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2743 or on Twitter @danielmoore1213.

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