The Price of Paper
Coastal communities around the world contend with the toxic legacies of pulp and paper mills.
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The Crofton pulp and paper mill—one of the biggest in Canada—occupies a sprawling site carved out of the coastal Douglas fir forests on the east side of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The mill’s commanding view of the Salish Sea, which separates the island from the mainland, is filtered through a bustling industrial lens. Belching stacks reach fist-straight for the clouds while conveyor-belt tongues transfer woodchips into a mechanical mouth to be shredded, laced with chemicals, and doused with water as they’re converted into pulp and paper.
It’s the sort of industrial complex that naturally draws unfavorable attention. Opened in 1957, Crofton mill has survived more than its share of public protests over pollution and disagreeable odors. Canadian rock legends Randy Bachman and Neil Young, and a host of other artists, have campaigned against the mill. In 2004, Bachman, then a resident of Saltspring Island, vowed to never rest until the mill closed. He now lives beyond sniffing distance in the greater Victoria area in British Columbia. And “Takin’ Care of Business” could very well be the mill’s victory song.
The managers of Crofton mill acknowledge the pulp sector’s checkered record on pollution, but say that has changed for the better in recent decades. The mill has undergone extensive upgrades and switched its bleaching process so that the nastiest and most long-lasting pollutants no longer threaten the marine food chain. Locals report a cleaner environment, including a noticeable reduction in odors and particulate matter that once fell so heavily the mill installed a free vehicle-rinse station for employees and the community. You can still find it in operation today, a relic of a bygone era in a corner of the mill’s parking lot.
“There’s no question there are some dark chapters in the history of this sector in British Columbia,” says Graham Kissack, vice president of environment, health, safety, and communications for Paper Excellence Canada, which purchased the Crofton mill in 2019. “But I think the story today is very different from 30 years ago.”
Still, pollution continues to challenge the industry and the behemoth Crofton mill exemplifies the problems, especially of aging facilities.
Government legislators determine how much air and water pollution any given mill is permitted to emit. When mills screw up in British Columbia, the province employs a policy of progressive sanctions to encourage compliance. Technically, under the Environmental Management Act, that means taking into consideration protection of the environment and human health.
But it would be naive to think that in Canada and elsewhere over the decades there has not been a balancing act between good-paying mill jobs and tax revenue versus environmental protection.
A review of British Columbia’s Natural Resources Compliance and Enforcement Database for the first eight months of 2022 reveals that nine pulp mills—including Crofton—have been cited by the province for a slew of violations ranging from unauthorized air and water emissions to failing to inform the province of problems on a timely basis.
Currently, there are 13 pulp mills operating in British Columbia.
A research paper by Dalhousie University and the Nova Scotia Department of Environment and Climate Change, also published in 2022, concluded that the pulp and paper industry is a major contributor to water and air pollution globally and an intensive consumer of energy.
And an analysis of the National Pollutant Release Inventory—a federal database compiled by Environment and Climate Change Canada—shows that the pulp and paper sector claimed seven of the top 10 spots on a federal list of industrial water polluters in British Columbia in 2018 and four of the top 10 spots for air pollutants.
“Wow, those are astonishing statistics,” says Tony Walker, an associate professor in the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie. “You don’t want to be atop the leader board for those kind of emissions.”
Walker observes that pulp mills are frequently the biggest economic generator in towns across Canada. “They’ve got the provinces and the various ministers by the short and curlies,” he says.
Crofton, despite technological changes, automation, and equipment closures that reduced the workforce from more than 1,000 as recently as 2009 to about 600 today, contributes about CAN $4-million or 13 percent of total property taxes in the local area, more than any other private employer.
At full operation, the mill produces about 700,000 tonnes of product annually. But it’s not always operating at full capacity: in 2019, the mill produced over 400,000 tonnes of pulp—the highest amount in 15 years—with most of the product sold to Asia.
The industry has faced some tough economic challenges, for example a sharp decline in newsprint business as newspapers across North America close, downsize, or shift to digital. Crofton responded by producing not just paper but packaging-grade products, including brown bags for fast-food outlets—the sort of items people use every day and often prefer to plastic.
“There’s a big shift in making pulp and paper mills more diversified,” says professor Orlando Rojas, scientific director of the BioProducts Institute at the University of British Columbia (UBC). “This is the way we’re going in the future.”
For Crofton, the tough times are far from over. Paper Excellence plans to indefinitely curtail its paper operations in early December, resulting in the layoff of about 150 union employees. Pulp production will continue. The company cites weak paper markets in China and the rising costs of chemicals, energy, and wood fiber.
For about 40 percent of Crofton’s pulp production, the mill mechanically separates fiber from woodchips using electricity. To produce the rest of the pulp, the mill relies on the kraft process: cooking the woodchips with chemicals under heat and high pressure to dissolve a tough compound, lignin, that glues together wood fiber. (Without lignin, trees and other plants would have no structure.)
The kraft process produces a stronger premium fiber; the mechanical pulping process does not use chemicals and achieves a higher yield at lower cost but results in a lower grade of paper. A waste byproduct of the kraft process is black liquor, which is then burned and the energy used to boil water and create steam to help meet the mill’s electricity requirements.
The kraft process mainly emits sodium sulphate and reduced sulfur compounds—responsible for the tell-tale stink of a mill—into the atmosphere, along with other combustion byproducts such as nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide.
When it comes to effluent releases into the ocean, the main areas of concern relate to toxicity, suspended solids, and biochemical oxygen demand—a water-quality measurement. In the absence of oxygen, bacteria and other microbes can’t decompose organic matter.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, pulp mills became a leading environmental target due to the release of chlorinated dioxins and furans—persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that worked their way into the food chain with troubling consequences.
Exposure to POPs has been linked to a range of toxic effects in human and nonhuman animals, including reproductive and developmental problems, immune-system damage, hormonal changes, and cancer.
Crofton came under special scrutiny after research studies found high levels of POPs in nesting great blue herons at Shoal Island, next to the mill.
The once-thriving colony had an estimated 64 breeding pairs before falling silent in 1987, eggs abandoned in nests or found on the ground beneath the colony. Scientists immediately suspected pulp pollution. Cormorants, eagles, and ospreys were also affected.
In 1992, Canada adopted regulations to reduce pulp emissions of POPs to non-detectable levels. The BC government enacted its own laws that same year providing a 10-year staged process to eliminate POPs from effluent. Getting there wasn’t cheap. Each mill spent on average an estimated $23.8-million to meet the new standards.
Though technology improved, environmental violations have continued.
So far in 2022, provincial compliance reports reveal that fines are being recommended against Crofton mill for three incidents of unauthorized effluent discharge in 2021: one involved a broken expansion joint; the other two involved failures of pumping systems. In the worst case, “less than 1,000,000 liters of a mixture of effluent, storm water and seawater” was spilled, the reports state. In keeping with government regulations, the company paid an independent lab to expose trout to samples of the effluent to determine toxicity. Ninety to 100 percent of the trout died over a 96-hour period.
Other violations of the provincial Environmental Management Act listed in the 2022 documents include delays in providing sample results and an annual report to the province, failure to provide evidence of required calibration of a flow-measuring device, and deficiencies in the company’s Effluent Toxicity Remedial Action Plan. The company also received a warning letter related to unauthorized storage of waste material dredged from in front of the mill’s dock.
Despite ongoing violations, Crofton’s biggest fines over the past decade have involved WorkSafeBC contraventions, not pollution violations. A search of the WorkSafeBC database shows Crofton mill was fined $75,000 in 2016 for the death of a truck driver unloading woodchips and $75,000 again in 2017 for the death of a bulldozer operator working on a chip pile.
According to provincial documents obtained through a freedom-of-information request, Crofton during that same period incurred just one pollution-related fine—$13,490, in 2019 for ongoing, excessive emissions of chlorine dioxide from two stacks in 2017 and 2018.
The low fine reflects the fact that chlorine dioxide, while harmful if inhaled at higher densities in enclosed areas, dissipates quickly in the air. The company is seeking a new testing regime with the province that it believes will bring it into compliance. The violations continue into 2022.
Enforcement action by the Canadian government led to a massive fine in British Columbia in 2018. Paper Excellence Canada pleaded guilty in provincial court and was ordered to pay $900,000. In north-central British Columbia, the company’s Mackenzie mill, now closed, spewed improperly treated effluent into fish-bearing Williston Lake in violation of the Fisheries Act.
When it comes to overall pollutants, Crofton is consistently among the worst industrial emitters.
The National Pollutant Release Inventory of 2018 showed that the Crofton mill ranked fourth in British Columbia for air emissions based on the release of 3,832 tonnes of four major pollutants: nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and particulates under 2.5 microns. Some 600 facilities in the province report to the federal inventory, including more than 400 industrial sites of all types in British Columbia emitting at least one tonne of air emissions.
In response, Paper Excellence says high rankings come with the territory—Crofton is a huge industrial operation. It also argues that pollution levels have dropped considerably over the years.
Daily releases of particulates in 2019 declined 95 percent from 1990, the company says. Total reduced sulfur dropped 34 percent and greenhouse gases dropped 66 percent during that period.
A suite of environmental upgrades gets the credit, including new or rebuilt recovery boilers, new precipitators to remove particulates, and moving from oil to natural gas.
Those trends seem consistent with preliminary findings of a pending new Cowichan Valley air study by the BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy that suggests the Crofton mill’s contribution to local air pollution is decreasing.
The study is based on air-quality measurements at specific monitoring stations rather than direct monitoring from stack emissions.
Sulfur dioxide measurements in the community are “well below” Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards, says provincial air-quality meteorologist Tarek Ayache. And, since 2016, the mill has significantly reduced the number of times they’ve exceeded the provincial Pollution Control Objectives for total reduced sulfur.
While the mill contributes to overall particulate emissions in the area, there are several other significant sources of particulates, including smoke from forest fires blowing in from other areas, along with wood-burning in stoves, fireplaces, private backyards, and farmlands.
Overall, local emissions of fine particulate matter concentrations are declining, perhaps because more governments are implementing changes, including recent municipal restrictions on backyard burning and provincial regulations for open burning.
In terms of marine discharges of organic compounds and toxic metals in 2018, Crofton placed fifth among more than 50 sites in the province, sending 39 tonnes into the Salish Sea, according to the National Pollutant Release Inventory.
A consultant’s report for Crofton by Golder Associates in April 2022 investigated the impact of the mill’s Swallowfield landfill on the surrounding environment. Closed in 1994, the landfill, which is located near the Chemainus River about 1.6 kilometers northwest of the mill, contains fly ash and wood waste.
The report concluded the landfill is “not a significant source” of surface or groundwater contamination and that limited findings of elevated heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the landfill itself are not found in leachate escaping from the landfill. The report acknowledges that the Penelakut Tribe is concerned about pollution from the landfill on their traditional food, but suggests no further sampling is warranted.
Farther from the mill, a troubling legacy of pollution still lurks in the waters.
A 2019 Hatfield consulting report found that POPs from past mill operations continue to be found in Dungeness crabs up to about 15 kilometers from the mill’s outfall. The federal government has issued ongoing warnings related to consumption of the hepatopancreas, the crab’s digestive gland.
To keep the community in the loop and gain trust, Crofton created a community forum, an occasional opportunity for community representatives to stay updated on mill operations.
In contrast to the high-profile mill protests of the past, sometimes only two to five residents show up at the forum meetings.
Mill officials provide an update on mill operations, market conditions, and environmental issues, and report on any public complaints, which tend to focus on odors. The company notes that humans can detect total reduced sulfur at levels as low as 0.5 parts per billion.
Forum members listen and ask questions, but lack the technical background to dig deep. “This is the thing,” says Garth Mihalcheon, who just completed a two-year stint on the forum. “What can I say … unless I hire a consultant?”
Mihalcheon lives in a residential subdivision on Mount Tzouhalem, a direct nine kilometers from the mill. He sees the plumes rise up through a saddleback in the landscape and occasionally smells the odors. “They have no financial incentives for fixing the problem,” he concludes. “They could, technically, but it’s an old mill … [and] it’s not worth it. They’re probably doing the best they can with that older technology. But let’s face it, this is still one of the biggest polluters in the province, no matter what they do.”
Experts confirm that a mill’s age is a big factor in its pollution problems. “The newer the mill, the less pollution,” says Peter Axegård, a Swedish chemical engineer who has worked with pulp mills around the world over the past four decades.
(Earlier this year, the BC government awarded Crofton $5.85-million to further improve the efficiency of its steam boilers, one in a series of allotments to various industries. The money came from a fund comprised of carbon taxes from industry.)
Modern new mills such as those in Scandinavia emit no foul odors due to collection and incineration of the gases. “The only smell is from the wood yard,” Axegård says. “There is no smell of sulfur at all.”
Some modern pulp mills, including those in South America, are so advanced they also pass the taste test. UBC’s Rojas actually drank recycled river water from a mill in Chile. “It’s actually pretty good,” he says. “They put back water that is in better condition.”
No one is stepping up to drink Crofton’s effluent. But people are also no longer calling for the mill to be shut down.
Kissack remains philosophical about the legacy of controversy.
“Everybody seems to hate the forest-products sector,” he says. “But show me another industry that uses a renewable resource that is 100 percent recyclable. Are people more comfortable using a paper bag from a grocery store or a plastic bag? People should think big picture.”
A sunny afternoon on the Crofton waterfront affords the opportunity for perspective. A river otter scampers across an oyster bed and into a rubble of concrete blocks. Two dozen weepy-eyed harbor seals periscope through the ocean’s cellophane surface, a California sea lion circus-barks from a log boom just offshore, and cormorants dry their leathery outstretched wings.
Great blue herons, the bird whose pollutant-laced eggs dramatically changed the way pulp mills are regulated, are here, too—to an extent.
While the herons returned to Shoal Island over time, the logging company that operates a timber sort at the site says it’s been at least five years since they were observed nesting. The province reports that private birders scoped out the area on June 29 this year and spotted nine herons feeding, but found no evidence of nesting at Shoal Island; where they go to nest remains a mystery.
Today, the heron officially remains a species of special concern. Having overcome the insidious threats of dioxins and furans, it now counts habitat loss and human disturbance among its biggest threats to survival.
Oblivious, these herons stand frozen in the shallows waiting for prey, the mill’s dull, mechanical hum serving as nature’s incongruous soundtrack for another day.