VERMONT - International Paper's effort to test-burn shredded tires for fuel at its Ticonderoga mill is Vermont's current environmental cause célèbre. But amid all the official posturing, legal maneuvering and media scrutiny, some Vermont environmentalists warn that the tire-burn debate obscures another potential health hazard lurking in the future: the incineration of IP's papermaking sludge.
In June, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation tentatively approved IP's application to renew its Title V air pollution permit. Among other things, that permit allows the mill to mix waste-treatment sludge with wood and burn up to 40 cubic yards of it every day.
Currently, IP-Ticonderoga doesn't burn its sludge. According to company spokesperson Donna Wadsworth, it has no plans to do so in the near future. She explains that several years ago the mill experimented, unsuccessfully, with burning sludge, but couldn't reduce its moisture content enough to make it a viable fuel source. Wadsworth adds that the company even invested $250,000 in dewatering equipment, which later was mothballed.
Sludge is a major waste-management concern for the pulp and paper industry in general, and for IP-Ticonderoga in particular. In 2004, the IP-Ticonderoga mill generated more than 56,000 pounds of solid waste, according to the EPA's Toxic Release Index database. Unlike some states, New York doesn't allow sludge to be used as land cover, fertilizer or compost. Solid waste filtered from the plant's effluent must be mixed with sand, land-filled onsite and covered daily. But IP will eventually run out of on-site landfill space, making incineration an attractive and cost-effective option.
In fact, the pulp and paper industry is the single largest user of biomass fuels such as sludge, according to the International Council of Forest and Paper Associations. And EPA documents indicate that many other paper mills around the country already burn sludge for fuel, including IP mills in Jay, Maine; Courtland, Alabama; and Riegelwood, North Carolina.
But environmentalists point out that burning sludge produces many of the same toxins as are created by burning tires. B.J. Ernst, with the Northeast Clean Air Coalition in Addison, opposes IP's effort to burn sludge and tire-derived fuel (TDF). She claims that one reason IP wants to test-burn TDF is to see if its boilers can get hot enough to eventually burn sludge there as well. IP's pending test-burn permit, it should be noted, would not allow sludge to be burned with TDF.
Richard Carpenter, president of People for Less Pollution (PLP) in Orwell, which also opposes the tire test burn, says that despite IP's denials, burning sludge remains a concern as long as IP's air pollution permit allows the mill to do so.
"Our chemical engineers are as concerned about burning sludge as they are about burning tires," he says. "They're certainly in the same category." When PLP's chemical engineer reviewed New York DEC documents from IP's last sludge burn in September 1999, they found numerous heavy metals and other contaminants had been released, Carpenter adds.
The IP plant in Riegelwood, North Carolina, which currently burns sludge, has met with significant community opposition, according to Louis Zeller of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League in Glendale Springs, North Carolina. Of particular concern, says Zeller, has been an increase in the release of hydrogen sulfide, a colorless gas that produces the "rotten-egg" smell often associated with paper mills. Burning sludge can increase hydrogen sulfide emissions, Zeller notes.
In November 2005, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published a study linking the release of hydrogen sulfide and other airborne chemicals at another paper mill - not IP's - to elevated suicide rates in one North Carolina county. According to the report, this was the second study to suggest a possible link between increased suicide rates and chemical exposure from paper mills.
But as IP-Ticonderoga's Wads-worth points out, each IP mill uses different chemicals and processes, depending upon the types of paper they produce. Comparing what comes out of the Ticonderoga mill to other mills around the country is "like apples and oranges," says Wadsworth. She emphasizes that IP is continually exploring new ways to handle its sludge.
"It would make sense to put it to some beneficial use, whether it's fertilizer, land cover or fuel," Wadsworth says. "But right now, we're not there yet."