Pulp and Paper Mills

Pulp and Paper Mills

By Jim Drummond, Nels Conroy, Dennis Draper
A 30-year Odyssey: Curbing water pollution in the pulp and paper industry

In 1850, the first Canadian pulp and paper mill began operating in the Don Valley of Toronto. A little over a century later, there were more than a 140 pulp and paper mills situated along the great rivers of the North – including 31 in Ontario – providing tens of thousands of jobs, driving exports and underpinning the national economy. For a time, nearly every sheet of every newspaper printed around the world was made from pulp processed in Canadian mills. But along with the considerable economic benefits they conferred, those mills were also contributing huge loadings of air and water pollutants to the environment. Three former managers with the Ontario Ministry of Environment – Jim Drummond, Nels Conroy and Dennis Draper – share their experiences in the field, in the lab and in the courts while they worked to reduce wastewater discharges from pulp and paper mills across Ontario. Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller also contributes some stories of his early years as a district officer with MOE in Northern Ontario.

Pollution was killing the great rivers of Northern Ontario

Pulp and paper mills had a huge impact on the rivers that received their wastes.  For up to 40 miles downriver from a mill, there were no fish, nobody boated or swam, and nobody drank the water. Mats of bark and wood chips covered the entire river bed for miles, destroying aquatic habitat and smothering spawning grounds, while brown foam floated on the surface. Extremely toxic contaminants built up in the sediments and bioaccumulated in any aquatic species that survived. Foul smelling pollutants and smoke billowed into the sky; some called it “the smell of prosperity.”

The first pollution control objectives are proposed

For much of the 20th Century, governments ignored or excused the environmental excesses of the industry.  The first wastewater quality objectives for the province’s pulp and paper mills were contained in a non-enforceable directive setting targets for improved water quality that was issued in 1965. All of these targets were to have been met by the end of 1969. None were. By 1975, as a result of a series of voluntary abatement programs, about half of Ontario's mills had managed to cut their gross discharges of wastewater and a handful had achieved the 1965 objectives. However, others had actually increased the amount of waste they were dumping into Ontario waters. In 1970, the federal government amended their Fisheries Act so they could issue pollution control regulations for various industrial sectors. The following year, the Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations were passed, which set some limits on the bark, wood fibres and other organic material being dumped, and prohibited the release of effluents that were killing fish. However, the standards applied only to new, expanded and/or altered mills. For existing mills, the federal limits served as non-enforceable guidelines. Only an estimated ten percent of mills were forced to comply with the federal limits, minimizing their environmental impact. Other regulations made under the Fisheries Act limited the mercury in liquid effluents and included sampling and reporting requirements, while separate regulations under the Clean Air Act to control air-borne emissions were put in place in 1978.

Mercury pollution in the English-Wabigoon river system

By the late 1960s, the first concerns about mercury poisoning were being raised on the White Dog and Grassy Narrows reserves in Northwestern Ontario. Since 1962, up to 20 pounds a day of mercury had been dumped into the English-Wabigoon river system from a chlor-alkali plant operated by Reed Paper Limited (formerly the Dryden Chemical Company) to produce the chlorine used in bleaching pulp. While the province ordered the company to stop discharging mercury in March 1970 – and all commercial (but not sport) fishing in the river was banned – mercury releases persisted under various extensions granted to the company. Airborne emissions also continued until the company stopped using its mercury-based process in October 1975. By that time, the sub-acute symptoms of Minamata disease, a severe and irreversible neurological disorder, were being diagnosed among dozens of residents on the two reserves. Minamata is caused by high exposure to methyl-mercury, which bioaccumulated in the fish that comprised a large part of the diet on the reserves. When the company was sold in 1979, an estimated 16 tonnes of mercury remained in the river sediments, and mercury-related health problems are still being reported in the reserves to this day.

Ontario resorts to control orders and court cases

Other than the federal regulations, there were no minimum industrial discharge standards covering pulp and paper mills operating in Ontario. In order to reduce wastewater discharges and air emissions, the District Offices of the Ministry of the Environment began to impose a series of Control Orders on individual mills under the authority of the Environmental Protection Act. Companies were installing new processing and pollution control equipment, tightening up operations and reducing wastes. In addition, new energy-efficient, low-waste paper-making technologies were slowly replacing some of the older, dirtiest mills. As a result, gross pollution from the industry was finally being brought under control. Between 1970 and 1984, the amount of bark, fibres and other suspended solids had been cut by 75 per cent. Organic waste discharges, which would decompose downstream stripping much of the oxygen from the water, were down by almost 60 per cent. However, certain problem areas still required further attention, including the release of dioxins, furans and other chlorinated wastes, phosphorous, toluene, phenol and certain odorous air pollutants, as well as excessive levels of organic wastes and suspended solids still being discharged from some mills.

Ontario uses Municipal/Industrial Strategy for Abatement to curb toxic effluents

In 1986, the Ministry launched its Municipal/Industrial Strategy for Abatement (MISA) to identify and reduce the water pollutants from nine different sectors, including the pulp and paper industry, with the goal of virtually eliminating certain toxic contaminants. Working with industry representatives and a multi-stakeholder advisory committee, the Ministry spent the next five years collecting effluent monitoring data and assessing the best available control technologies and pollution prevention opportunities for reducing emissions from each sector. Finally, in November 1993, the Ministry issued the Effluent Monitoring and Effluent Limits regulation (O. Reg. 760/93), which set stringent discharge limits for each of the province’s remaining 27 pulp and paper mills. Mill discharges also had to meet strict toxicity tests, and the nine mills that still used chlorine bleaching had to completely phase out their release of organochlorines by 2002. Overall, the MISA regulation was expected to reduce persistent toxic compounds from the pulp and paper sector by up to 90 per cent, based on 1990 levels.

Updating the federal standards

After extensive consultation, the federal Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations were completely revised in May 1992. All pulp and paper mills are now required to meet the effluent quality standards, ensure their wastewaters were not lethal to fish, and undertake comprehensive environmental effects monitoring. Two additional sets of amendments to the federal regulations were adopted in 2004 and 2008, focused mainly on monitoring and reporting requirements, while streamlining toxicity testing and biological monitoring. In recent years, the economic restructuring of the industry and a switch to more competitive sources of pulp in the tropics have also served to curb discharges. It took nearly 30 years, but authorities had finally brought the environmental impacts of the pulp and paper sector under control.
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