Court Upholds Controversial Paper Mill Discharge Limits

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, April 22, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has upheld updated discharge limits for pulp and paper mills adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1998. The regulations were challenged by the conservation group National Wildlife Federation, which charged that they were too lenient to protect the public and the environment.

The court opinion, issued Friday, will allow enforcement of the 1998 regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the rules will "substantially reduce" discharges of numerous toxic pollutants, including dioxin, and will encourage mills to use the most modern and effective pollution control technologies.

mill

The Canton Mill in Canton, North Carolina produces about 500,000 tons of pulp and paper each year. (Photo courtesy North Carolina Association of County Agricultural Agents)
"Today's court ruling is a big win for public health and the environment," said Tracy Mehan, the EPA's assistant administrator for water. "The pulp and paper mill rule will reduce dioxin discharges, protecting the health of millions of American families who live near the mills. It will lead to the cleanup of over 70 rivers and streams across the nation. Over time, this rule will virtually eliminate fish advisories caused by dioxin discharges from by the pulp and paper industry."

Pulp and paper mills have historically used large amounts of bleaching chemicals, such as chlorine, as part of the paper production process, which can lead to discharges of toxic pollutants such as dioxin. The standards upheld by the court will require the adoption of more modern production processes by all mills nationwide.

To meet the new standards, existing mills will no longer be able to use the most harmful types of chlorine in the bleaching process, and new mills will need to implement additional process changes that will bring about further pollution reductions. The EPA has also adopted a Voluntary Advanced Technologies Incentive Program, which offers various incentives to mills to adopt even more pollution controls.

waste basin

This paper company waste disposal basin is designed to dilute chemicals with water. (Photo courtesy Minnesota Sea Grant)
In May 1998, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) challenged the pulp and paper mill rule, charging that the Clinton administration's rule failed to protect the public and the environment because it did not ban chlorine based processes. The environmental group promoted the use of oxygen delignification, a process the NWF said would almost eliminate the mills' toxic discharges at little additional cost to the companies.

"Industry claims that the costs of addressing these threats will force plant closings and job losses are nothing but fear mongering," said NWF attorney Neil Kagan. "Yes, there will be some up front investment in doing the right thing, but over time the environmentally preferable option will cost the industry less. And can you even put a price on reducing the harm to people and wildlife?"

Exposure to chlorine based chemicals has been linked to increased rates of cancer, reproductive abnormalities, impaired immune systems, and learning and behavioral disorders.

The Justice Department, which defended the EPA in the case, said the court ruling shows that the EPA made the right decision in 1998.

toxic sediment

Pollution below a wood mill on Keene Creek in Minnesota. (Photo by Pat Collins, courtesy Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)
"Implementation of the standards upheld by the court today will assure that American paper mills take advantage of the latest pollution control technology, resulting in significant water quality improvements nationwide," said Tom Sansonetti, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's environment and natural resources division. "The court's decision is a strong reaffirmation of the strength of EPA's technical record and the reasonableness of its approach in finding the right balance to clean up the environment without imposing excessive costs on American industry."

Meanwhile, pulp mills in other nations are switching to the safer, cleaner oxygen delignification process, the NWF said.

"EPA has a legal and moral obligation to protect people and the environment from the dangers of these chemicals," said NWF president Mark Van Putten. "It does not have the option of staying with the status quo simply because the industry prefers it."