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

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.

``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.

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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.

L-P's new pulpmaking process (which is used in several dozen mills in Scandinavia and other European countries) involves the use of hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorine. When the company began the process, mill manager Mr. Martin recalls, ``there were lots of struggles and lots of surprises.''

``The early runs did not go well,'' he says. ``The pulp was weak and foamy - a real mess.'' The resulting paper was well below the industry standard for brightness and strength.

An economic turnaround

The mill's changeover also came during tough times for the pulp and paper industry. The mill lost $30 million during 1992 and 1993, and workers had to be laid off for months at a time. But officials say things turned around last year, during which the mill's 225 employees were put back to work and the mill earned $10 million in pre-tax profits.

Two weeks ago, L-P announced that its permanent conversion to TCF production was complete. Company officials also say they intend to completely recycle all of the water used in bleaching by the end of next year. So far, they've reduced waste water by about 30 percent.

``Although some mills in Scandinavia are moving in the direction of 100 percent recycling of the water used in bleaching, our hope is to be the first mill in the world to reach that goal,'' says Kirk Girard, environmental operations manager for L-P's western division.

The mill now produces 650 tons of pulp a day, 95 percent of it bound for paper mills in Europe and Asia. Officials claim their product's brightness and strength have greatly improved. In this country, the Patagonia clothing company and the Yakima company (maker of auto roof racks for skis, bikes, and other sports equipment) are using TCF paper in their catalogs.

To mark the company's recent announcement, the state of California removed a 1990 sport fishing health advisory warning people in the area that ``because of elevated levels of dioxins, no one should eat fish or shellfish caught from waters near the discharges of pulp and paper mills.''

Jack Pandol, undersecretary of Cal/EPA (California's environmental agency) says L-P's action ``has significantly contributed to the clean bill of health for the sport-fishing industry.''

Also on hand was assistant EPA administrator Lynn Goldman, who referred to the experience here as ``the way government and industry should be working together in this country, looking for cost-effective and common-sense solutions.''

In her recent visit to the mill, Dr. Goldman called dioxins ``one of the more difficult groups of chemicals to manage.'' And, she added: ``Really, the only way to control dioxins is by controlling the production of dioxins in the first place.''

How far EPA will go in regulating what Goldman describes as a ``very toxic'' substance remains to be seen. The agency soon will issue a proposed set of new rules for the industry.

L-P officials acknowledge that their move to TCF pulp is not entirely altruistic.

``With an eye to the regulatory environment and with an eye to the market, we took what we thought was a shrewd economic decision,'' says Mr. Girard, the environmental operations manager. ``It's not that we're necessarily `greener' than anybody else.''

Costly industry conversion

That may be the only point on which L-P and the rest of the industry agree.

``We're now seeing a marketing push by those people who have invested in that technology trying to convince everybody else that they have a leg up on a more environmentally-proven process,'' says Henson Moore, president of the American Forest and Paper Association (AFPA). ``That's what this is really all about.''

L-P spent more than $120 million improving its Samoa pulp mill, and AFPA figures that shifting the whole US papermaking industry to a TCF process would cost $11 billion over five years. That's $4 billion more than the $7 billion expected to be spent in converting to ECF operations - and $4 billion is more than total industry profits for the past five years.

What the trade association hopes to see, Mr. Moore says, is an EPA ruling that sets a minimum dioxin level and lets the industry decide how best to get there.

Referring to the pulp and paper industry, and also to the lobbying clout of the industry that manufactures chlorine chemicals, Mr. Simpson of Louisiana-Pacific says: ``We're fighting giants here.''

For environmentalists, Stockwell of the Surfrider Foundation says the marketing of ``totally chlorine-free'' pulp in the US ``means a new industry standard ... the fire to which we will hold the industry's feet.''

In any case, he's just glad to be able to play in the California surf without worrying about the problems associated with dioxin. ``I've been surfing three out of the past five days,'' he says cheerily.

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