Paper Mills Move to Clean Up Their Acts

Companies in Maine and around the world reduce dioxin discharge in rivers by curbing use of chlorine

Long before you saw it, your nose told you it was there: Brown and sulfurous, Maine's Androscoggin River of the 1960's was a sorry advertisement for a local paper mill.

Today your senses would tell you otherwise. This Maine waterway looks and smells almost clean. But at least one hidden pollutant remains - one which is driving changes in the paper industry around the world.

Dioxin, which has been likened to DDT and PCBs, is a by-product of chlorine bleaching, the process used to make paper products bright white. (Garbage incinerators are another major dioxin source).

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), dioxin is considered a carcinogen. In Maine, as in several other states, citizens are advised to strictly limit consumption of fish from rivers into which paper mills discharge wastewater.

But that should change by the year 2000, according to Maine Gov. Angus King. In an April speech, he announced that Maine's seven chlorine bleaching, or "kraft" paper mills had committed to what he called a nationally unprecedented goal: to eliminate their discharge of dioxin into Maine's rivers.

The mills also promised to work toward lifting fish-eating advisories by the year 2000.

Across the country, particularly in other major paper mill states such as Washington, Florida, and Montana, like-minded groups are following Maine's lead.

"People are seeing what happened in Maine as a precedent," says Alicia Culver, Coordinator of Ralph Nader's Government Purchasing Project in Washington, D.C., a group which encourages government agencies to buy dioxin-free products. "[Such] local activities drive what happens at the national level."

Mills use cleaner processing

The announcement is in keeping with a growing international movement to ban a long list of so-called persistent organic pollutants, or POPS, including dioxin.

Around the world, nearly 40 paper mills have chosen to stop creating dioxin by switching to totally chlorine-free (TCF) production.

In Europe, particularly Scandinavia and Germany (30 percent of the TCF mills are in Sweden), environmental concerns, consumer demand, and economics are credited with causing this shift. Some are calling it the most significant development ever to take place in the paper industry.

In the US, though the push toward dioxin cleanup has been strong within the environmental community, paper mills have been slower to follow the European example. Last year, after the EPA released a dioxin study, over 350 groups signed a petition urging the agency to ban the use of chlorine in paper manufacturing. Currently only one US kraft mill, Louisiana Pacific in Samoa, Calif., produces totally chlorine-free pulp by using bleach with hydrogen peroxide.

Seen as an example of how paper mills can be profitable, environmentally responsible, and still produce a high quality competitive product, Louisiana Pacific stands to garner international attention next year when it is scheduled to become the first in the world to be "closed loop," and it will recycle all its wastewater. The process is difficult to do with chlorine bleaching because it corrodes pipes.

So what is keeping other US mills from following suit? Cost is a major factor. While Europeans are proving that new TCF mills are actually cheaper to build than those using chlorine, the price of converting an existing mill to TCF is high. Although many have managed to reduce dioxin discharges to levels the EPA calls "non-detectable" by substituting some chlorine dioxide for elemental chlorine, few feel that the benefits of conversions to complete non-chlorine processing are worth the costs. They also argue that the small amounts of remaining dioxin are not harmful.

Even the Maine mills have not specified how or when they will reach their goal of completely eliminating dioxin. According to Jeff Nevins, communications manager for the Boise Cascade paper mill in Rumford, Maine, their plan of action will depend largely on revised EPA technology standards, or industry cluster rules, due out this fall.

EPA New England representative Steve Silva says the agency will weigh all sides of the dioxin issue in developing the rules, but few people expect standards to set TCF as "best available technology." The standard is most likely to require the use of 100 percent chlorine dioxide.

Industry asks for more flexibility

Because all mills are different, says Mr. Nevins, the strength of their agreement with Governor King lies in the flexibility it gives each company to develop technologies which work best for them; he hopes new EPA standards will do the same. "We don't believe that TCF is the only prescription [for eliminating dioxin]," says Nevins. "Its benefits are still questionable, even among scientists."

But to Peter Washburn, staff scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, it's a black and white issue; mills either eliminate dioxin by not using chlorine (including chlorine dioxide) or they don't - there is no safe in-between.

Jane Williams, an environmental economist with California Communities Against Toxics, agrees. "The bottom line is, whenever you put chlorine into a product and heat it, you create dioxin," she says. "Once dioxin is formed, all you can do is try to control it; you can't eliminate it." She also points out that a provision calling for a phase-out of chlorine in the 1993 Clean Water Act Reauthorization was omitted after heavy pressure from the chlorine industry.

Meanwhile, TCF advocates are hoping that increased consumer demand for chlorine-free paper will influence the industry in the US as it has in Europe.

In grocery and stationery stores, shoppers can now find everything from chlorine-free coffee filters and paper towels to fancy writing and printing paper. According to Alicia Culver, a number of cities (including Chicago and Seattle) and states (Vermont, Massachusetts and Oregon) have recently passed policies to favor the purchase of the paper. Carlyn Grodinski, recycling specialist with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, says it is perfectly legible for writing - the biggest difference is that it is not as bright.

But Bob Kearney recycling coordinator with the US Postal Service of the district of Maine says, "We have found the brightness and quality to be as good as any chlorine bleached paper for use in our high speed copiers and laser printers."

While most of what is available is actually "secondarily chlorine free," or recycled from chlorine bleached paper but bleached without chlorine the second time around, Ms. Culver says she hopes to see 100 percent recycled, all-TCF paper on the market before long.

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