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A Pulp Mill Comes Clean With Chlorine-Free Processing

Plant's less-polluting methods draw interest from conservationists and EPA, but ire from industry leaders

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 7, 1995


AS a surfer and commercial fisherman, Glenn Stockwell always had a keen interest in the water quality along the north coast of California. And inevitably he would sense when he was getting close to the pipe that carried the effluent from the Louisiana-Pacific pulp mill out into the Pacific.

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``A half-mile offshore in the fog I would know exactly where I was when I got anywhere near the area of the outfall,'' he recalls. ``My prop wash would turn a reddish-brown. Sometimes the fumes would be so acrid you could feel it in your eyes. The smell was intense.''

But today, Mr. Stockwell reports, ``that has been cut tremendously.'' Waste water coming out of the pipe is far less toxic and nearly clear, so clear that ``it's hard to find the plume if you fly over it now,'' he says.

The improvement has come in part as a result of the Louisiana-Pacific Corporation's decision to convert its pulp mill at Samoa, Calif., to a totally chlorine-free operation - the first one in North America to do so.

It's been a controversial move, lauded by environmentalists, criticized by industry leaders as marketing hype, and of keen interest to US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulators now formulating new rules for pulp- and papermakers.

But beyond the single business of papermaking, the move by Louisiana-Pacific (L-P) also is part of the broader debate over chlorine - a ubiquitous feature of water purification and industrial processes now linked to poisonous substances (including dioxins) suspected of causing serious health problems.

Until recently, L-P would not have been thought of as an environmental leader. The Portland, Ore.-based company was routinely listed as one of the 10-worst polluters in the United States by the Council on Economic Priorities, a public interest group in New York. Or, as Samoa pulp-mill manager Fred Martin says wryly of environmentalists, ``We were not a corporation to give them warm, fuzzy feelings.''

Several years ago, the company was sued by the Surfrider Foundation for industrial permit violations under the federal Clean Water Act. This is a 22,000-member group of which Stockwell, who teaches political science at a local junior college, is a national board member.

Mill agrees to clean up

The EPA became involved, and under a consent decree worked out with the US Justice Department, L-P paid $2.9 million in civil penalties, lengthened its effluent pipeline almost a mile (5,000 feet) out to 8,000 feet to disperse the pollutants more, and began steam-stripping what are called ``foul condensates'' (principally methanol) created during the pulpmaking process in order to make the effluent cleaner. The company also agreed to process wood pulp without using chlorine, and L-P officials pledged to work toward a closed-cycle system that would vastly reduce polluted waste while saving water and energy.

This last part of the agreement was risky, because bleaching pulp without chlorine is a relatively new procedure that costs about 10 percent more and therefore presents unique challenges in a highly competitive market. Paper that is TCF (totally chlorine-free) is increasingly sought after in Europe, where it has jumped to 20 percent of the market over the past few years. But in this country it is hardly known.

``We took a chance and said, `The American public wants chlorine-free paper,' '' says Robert Simpson, Western division manager for Louisiana-Pacific.

The pulp that eventually becomes paper and cardboard basically results from wood chips that have been ``chemically attacked'' (to use the industry's graphic phrase) in order to remove the lignins, the ``glue'' that holds the wood together. That turns the chips into fibers and eventually paper, the quality of which is measured by its brightness and strength.

There are about 100 pulp mills in the US today still using some chlorine. But the industry is moving toward the use of chlorine dioxide rather than elemental chlorine. This ECF (elemental chlorine-free) pulp reduces the resultant dioxins to a very low level.

``The levels we're getting [using ECF pulp] are just not of concern to EPA,'' says Matthew Van Hook, vice president of the American Forest and Paper Association, an industry trade group in Washington. ``They're nondetectable.''

Levels of detection and relative health risk are subjects of considerable scientific debate, however, particularly now that the Republican-led Congress is pushing ``risk assessment'' and ``cost-benefit analysis'' as a basis for environmental regulation.