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Pulp Mill Sludge

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Pulp Mill Sludge

For most of us, the thought of eating food grown in pulp sludge is unappetizing. But the BC Liberal government and the pulp and paper industry have teamed up to push new regulations that will allow the use of pulp mill sludge, fly ash, and mill waste water to be used as a "soil enhancement product.

For most of us, the thought of eating food grown in pulp sludge is unappetizing. But the pulp mill industry and the British Columbia Ministry of Environment find the idea very appealing.

The BC Liberal government and the pulp and paper industry have teamed up to push new regulations that will allow the use of pulp mill sludge, fly ash, and mill waste water to be used as a “soil enhancement product.”

Soil enhancement product–it sounds so natural, doesn’t it? Like compost and mulch and manure–all those good earthy things that are so great for the soil.

The problem is that no one seems to know precisely what’s in this chemical cocktail, much less what long-term effects it will have on soil, ground-water, plants, food, people, and animals.

Critics of the plan are voicing a variety of concerns. In spite of a growing list of unanswered questions, pulp mill sludge is being spread on farmlands, forests, golf courses, ball fields, and lawns throughout Canada and the US, possibly in your community.

Where’s the Evidence?

Shane Simpson, MLA for Vancouver-Hastings (NDP) in BC and the Opposition critic for Environment, is a vocal skeptic of the plan, though he does not dismiss the idea entirely.

“This idea is not totally and completely off the wall. It may be possible to do it safely,” he concedes.

So what does the environment critic object to? Mr. Simpson begins listing.

“The problem is a lack of due diligence and public input. There are no clear guidelines for use of this material. Where is the independent analysis? Where is the independent, peer-reviewed science? We need to know what the good, the bad, and the ugly are in this stuff. There has been a lack of public consultation, a lack of government transparency,” insists Mr. Simpson.

A Brief History

Delores Broten, the energetic and dedicated woman behind two environmental health organizations, Reach for Unbleached and The Watershed Sentinel, has been embroiled in this issue for more than 10 years. In 1996, she was part of a task force committee that included government, environmental organizations, and the pulp mill industry. Their mission was to design a viable solution to the burgeoning problem of waste from pulp mills.

The pulp mills proposed a form of composting and then land-spreading their industrial waste instead of using a much more costly land-filling method.

Ms. Broten and the other environmental watchdogs at the table remained open-minded while they steadfastly demanded what seems a highly logical step in the process. They insisted that industrial wastes undergo testing before being smeared over the land. Their draft included a requirement for testing of about 50 potential contaminants with clear limits on
specific compounds and guidelines on where land-spreading was appropriate.

It took two years for the BC Ministry of Environment to agree to independent testing to determine the chemical makeup of sludge. This apparently displeased the Council of Forest Industries, the forest industry umbrella group at the time. They withdrew from the task committee and adequate testing was left undone.

The latest regulations stated in government documents dated October 2005 have reduced the number of compounds required for testing from 50 to 11.

Spreading Compost or Spreading Toxins?

No one, not industry, government, or environmentalists, is fully aware of all the chemicals that could be in pulp mill sludge. But one thing is certain. The government’s plan to test for only 11 out of 50 possibly harmful compounds leaves a lot of room for uncertainty.

Hence, environmental groups insist it is impossible to conclude that the sludge is safe. The exact toxic contents of sludge are unknown, and the long-term risks to human health and the environment have not been determined.

“We do know that it contains a variety of heavy metals, thallium, benzenes, and phenolics,” warns Ms. Broten. “This is not a simple mix at all. Concentrated waste chemicals from the trees go into the sludge along with the additives from the pulp mill process. Composting it is ideal, but it must be done correctly with proper monitoring.”

The Georgia Strait Alliance, a nonprofit environmental organization made up of more than 60 member groups and thousands of individuals, strongly opposes the proposal, stating, “We simply do not know enough about pulp mill sludge to be spreading it on land that could pollute our water tables.”

In a letter to the BC government, the alliance asked them to “close the door on sludge spreading until independent testing proves the practice is safe for communities, workers, and the environment.”

Pulp Fiction or Fact?

Not surprisingly, the pulp mill side of the story reads differently. According to Ms. Fiona Mackay, Environment Superintendent at Zellstoff Celgar Limited, a large pulp mill operating in Castlegar, BC, the mill’s effluent treatment system produces a residual material more commonly referred to as biosolids, an approximate 60/40 mixture of fibre/lime and bacteria.

Information provided by Celgar states their material is nontoxic, has low metal (except boron) and chlorinated organic material content, and meets acceptable standards established by the government.

“Celgar has been demonstrating the beneficial reuse of our effluent treatment biosolids for the past 10 years. Applications within the region have utilized both raw biosolids and composted materials. There have been a number of larger applications which include golf courses, ball fields, lawns/fields, and land reclamation.”

Profit Motive

Pulp mills have a significant vested interest in promoting their industrial waste as harmless, even helpful “compost” and fertilizer. They stand to save millions of dollars if they can sell relatively raw sludge for spreading on land rather than going to the expense of hauling it to a secure containment site.

“For some kinds of sludge, composting before spreading might be a way to go. Properly composted waste is a potential soil enhancer for eroded areas and other forestry sites,” says Ms. Broten. “But that means industry would have to pay more to store the sludge long enough for it to break down.”

It seems that what pulp mill firms are pushing for, however, is not the thoroughly composted method Ms. Broten refers to, but the simple land-spreading of their sludge–a much cheaper option.

Who’s Keeping an Eye on Things?

Who is making sure everyone is following the rules? Recent environmental budget cuts have eliminated hundreds of qualified science and technology officers who should be closely monitoring and assessing the situation. Instead, an industry-based regulating and reporting system is in place.

Sounds a little like the fox watching the henhouse, doesn’t it?

Environment critic Shane Simpson describes it like this: “Our government is saying ‘Ok, we’re removing the regulations. Do what you want while meeting standards.’ But the standards are not adequate. Environmental safeguards are fewer than they were five years ago. Things are definitely falling through the cracks.”

The BC government has become strangely silent on this issue. While the Ministry of Environment website displays a promise to prepare and post a “consultation summary report,” no report has been posted as of this writing. The deadline for all responses and comments was December 15, 2005. My repeated inquiries to the consultation manager about when this report will be available have gone unanswered.

What’s Happening?

“They’ve gone into bureaucratic limbo,” declares Delores Broten. “They’ve been pushing shoddy science and have lost credibility. They are astounded at the sound and fury of our response.”

Our health is dependent on the health of our air, soil, and water. We must prohibit the land spreading of pulp mill sludge until these waste materials are known to be safe.

Reach for Unbleached

When you buy only unbleached paper products, including toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels, you send a powerful message to pulp mills that lets them know you’re serious about cleaning up the environment. Reaching for unbleached paper products helps

  • eliminate organochlorines in the liquid effluent
  • dramatically reduce the toxicity of solid waste
  • improve worker health and safety

Buy environmentally friendly paper goods. Look for labels that say

  • unbleached
  • oxygen-bleached
  • chlorine free
  • 100 percent post-consumer recycled, not secondarily bleached

Stop Sludge Spreading

The spreading of pulp mill sludge is not unique to BC. Other provinces, including Ontario, are facing the same threat. Here are five simple ways you can help:

  1. Learn more about this and other environmental health topics.
  2. Subscribe to and support organizations that act to protect our environmental health such as:
    • The Watershed Sentinel (watershedsentinel.ca)
    • Reach for Unbleached (rfu.org)
    • Georgia Strait Alliance (georgiastrait.org)
  3. Choose organic products. Pulp sludge is not an allowable soil amendment in certified organic farming practices.
  4. Only buy unbleached paper products.
  5. Write to your provincial environment minister about this issue.
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