EPA Sued for Ignoring Paper Mill CO2 Emissions

Massive emissions of greenhouse gases in the form of carbon dioxide make biomass and coal burning facilities major contributors to climate change. Yet one large source of climate pollution that’s been flying under the radar has been pulp and paper mills—until now.


International Paper's Ticonderoga Mill , New York (photo: itsgettinghotinhere.org

A lawsuit against the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched by the Center for Biological DiversityGreenpeace, and Port Townsend AirWatchers could force new pulp and paper mills—and possibly even existing facilities—to cut back on their carbon dioxide emissions or shut down. The US is the world’s largest consumer of paper products, according to a Center for Biological Diversity fact sheet. The pulp and paper industry is the nation’s 3rd largest consumer of energy, after the petroleum and chemical industries, emitting 57.7 MMT CO2 eq (million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent) in 2004.\

The first-of-its-kind lawsuit demands that the EPA abide by Section 111 of the Clean Air Act, which requires the EPA to review air pollution standards for paper mills every eight years, according to Vera Pardee, Senior Attorney with the Climate Law Institute. The last time the EPA reviewed paper mill standards was in 1986—twenty six years ago. “Since then the EPA hasn’t done anything,” said Pardee on an October 31, 2012 legal briefing via phone organized by Environmental Paper Network. “This is an unreasonable delay.”

The paper mills in question are called “kraft” mills, referring to a chemical process employed to convert wood into wood pulp to make paper. The kraft pulping process is “very energy intensive, digesting wood chips in solutions in high temperatures, recovering chemicals with a heating process,” said Pardee. Every time heat is used, greenhouse gases are emitted.

Aside from greenhouse gases, paper mills are a major source of toxic air pollution, including but not limited to particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds. While referring to the toxic air pollutants emitted from paper mills as “horrific,” Pardee explained the “prime motivation” for the lawsuit to be carbon dioxide emissions due to their effect on the climate. “We’ve just seen Sandy’s impact,” said Pardee, “a hurricane that was amplified to a significant extent by climate change.”

Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, and PT AirWatchers intend that their lawsuit will force the EPA to review the air pollution standards for paper mills. If the EPA determines that the “standards do not meet available technology,” the agency would review the standards and ultimately issue a proposed new rule. If all goes according to plan, the lawsuit would then be at an end. If the EPA continues to shirk its responsibility, then “other legal avenues are available,” warned Pardee.

Any proposed rule revising kraft mill standards would be released by the EPA by May of 2013, opened to public comment, and then finalized by March 2014. However, Pardee doesn’t think climate and forest advocates need to wait until next year to make their voices heard. “Industry is certainly talking to EPA at all times, making submissions—no reason we shouldn’t do same thing,” advised Pardee. The proposed rule would mandate that EPA take a long hard look at various other air pollutants emitted by pulp and paper mills, besides carbon dioxide.

The plaintiffs “truly do expect that the proposed rule will tighten standards and tackle pollutants,” said Pardee. While the rules would at first apply only to new paper mills, the EPA would also be required to issue “guidance” for emissions from existing mills. While guidance leaves industry more wiggle room than standards, paper mills operating across the country could be subject to new restrictions.

Port Townsend AirWatchers, a grassroots community group based in Port Townsend, Washington, became a plaintiff in the EPA lawsuit due to concerns about carbon dioxide and other air pollution from the Port Townsend Paper Company, which is also proposing to build a brand new biomass power incinerator.

“The hope is that our countries industrial regulations will continue to move towards clean air, water, and soil that reflects current science and technology focused on protecting our earth and environment, now and in the future,” said Elaine Bailey, of Port Townsend AirWatchers.

The new air quality standards for pulp mills will only apply to biomass incinerators if the incinerator is a part of the pulp mill and legally considered a “modification” of the facility, according to Pardee. “There’s an enormous amount of case law and regulatory material that helps define that.” If the EPA sets the new standards, the law would require a concurrent update in guidance for existing facilities such as the Port Townsend Paper Mill. “If the EPA doesn’t do it,” said Pardee, “there’s the next lawsuit.”

Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away, some Vermont and New York State residents hope that the lawsuit will eventually apply to one of the largest, local air and water polluters, International Paper’s Ticonderoga Paper Mill. Looming on the banks of Lake Champlain—one of the largest freshwater bodies in the US, a recreational paradise, and the drinking water supply for Burlington, Vermont, population 42,000—the Ticonderoga Mill has racked up an astounding number of air and water quality violations over its four decades of operation. [see chart below].


In 2006, a contingent of Vermont residents and Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) joined together to successfully oppose the paper mill’s proposal to burn tires for energy following a test burn that sent toxic pollutants across the Lake into Vermont.

Aside from the tires, according to Planet Hazard, International Paper’s Ticonderoga Mill currently emits 2,373,928.63 pounds per year (PPY) of sulfur dioxide and 1,514,021 PPY of nitrogen oxides, both threats to the respiratory system; 730,631.80 PPY of carbon monoxide, which can cause heart attacks; 530,726.28 PPY of carcinogenic Volatile Organic Compounds; 253,703.18 PPY of asthma-causing Particulate Matter 2.5 and 391,453.70 PPY of Particulate Matter 10; 47,672.80 PPY of ammonia; 2,414 TPY of chloroform; 1,468 PPY of chlorine; 541.98 PPY of lead; and dozens of other toxic air pollutants.

While the EPA ruling that could theoretically impact the Ticonderoga Mill is years away, today the mill is fighting for its life due to the increasing cost of fuel oil to power the facility. US Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) was quoted in a September 2012  Press-Republican article saying that “the cost of energy is the big albatross around this plant.” Schumer believes the Ticonderoga Mill might close if it cheaper energy sources do not become available, according to the article.  

In response to International Paper’s pleas, Vermont Gas Systems, subsidiary of Montreal-based Gaz Metro, plans to extend a pipeline under Lake Champlain to bring natural gas down from Canada to power the facility. Thirty to forty-five percent of Vermont Gas’ product is obtained through the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, according to a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute in Vermont, quoted in a February 2012 blog post in Seven Days.

Some Vermonters are pointing out the contradictions between the Vermont State Legislature’s 2012 ban on fracking within state borders, while simultaneously allowing the construction of more infrastructure to transport natural gas fracked in Canada. The McNeil Generating Station, a 50 megawatt biomass power incinerator in Burlington that supplies electricity for one-third of the city’s residents, burns a small percentage of natural gas from Vermont Gas Systems along with roughly 400,000 tons of wood each year.

"Natural gas is a false solution to climate change,” said Keith Brunner of Rising Tide Vermont, a Burlington-based group that opposes the pipeline. “We banned fracking in this state for a reason. Vermont Gas’ pipeline would lock our communities into decades of dependence on dirty energy, despite the urgent need to transition towards genuinely renewable, community-owned energy sources."

The technique of “directional drilling” to lay the pipeline under Lake Champlain is risky, according to the California Department of Energy. “Frac-out, or inadvertent return of drilling lubricant, is a potential concern” when using directional drilling “under sensitive habitats, waterways, and areas of concern for cultural resources.” The process uses a fine clay material called “bentonite slurry” as drilling lubricant. Certain “invertebrates, aquatic plants and fish and their eggs can be smothered by the fine particles if bentonite were discharged to waterways.”

If the EPA ruling—or simple economics—eventually cuts back on paper mill pollution, the question arises: where will Americans get their paper? Unless the federal government ends its prohibition on hemp production (currently classified as an illegal drug, despite its almost complete lack of psychoactive THC) Americans may be looking to our neighbors to the north for the answer.

In Canada, Greenfield Paper Company produces “Hemp Heritage” paper, consisting of 25% hemp, 75% post-consumer recycled paper content. As opposed to cutting forests for paper, industrial hemp doesn’t cause forest degradation, avoids the caustic chemical kraft processing, and can be recycled more times than wood pulp because of its longer fibers. However, all forms of industrial-scale agriculture, including hemp production, have an environmental impact.

In November 2012, actor and environmental activist Woody Harrelson announced his partnership with a Canadian company to build a paper mill using only agricultural waste.

Joshua Martin, of Environmental Paper Network, said “smaller, cleaner, specialized mills might be a preferred future for paper needs. Gradually we can build these closer to sources of other fiber instead of in the forest.”  

Ironically, one of the industries that would benefit most from the demise of the pulp and paper industry would be the biomass industry. With less competition for a limited supply of forests, biomass developers could more fully commandeer the available stream of wood and build even more—and larger—biomass incinerators.