After 3 years, IP says 'never mind'
By DARREN M. ALLEN Vermont Press Bureau | November 19,2006
MONTPELIER – To understand all the fuss over International Paper's quest to burn shredded tires, you have to start with a grain of salt and get smaller – eight times smaller, to be exact.
That's the size of the tiny specks of pollution – some carrying cancer-causing heavy metals – known as fine particulates that, in the end, eluded the Ticonderoga, N.Y., mill's sophisticated pollution control devices during its recent test burn of tire-derived fuel.
After three years of public wrangling, shredded tires were finally fed into the plant's giant power boilers recently. The two-week test burn would have ended today had IP not stopped it last week. Just five days into the experiment, the plant gave up an alternative energy source that could have saved the company $4 million a year.
"We weren't able to, with any consistency, manage the total amount of fine particulates, regardless of the level of tire-derived fuel," the plant's spokeswoman, Donna Wadsworth, said last week. "It didn't matter what levels we used; we expected that when we ramped up the amount we put in, that the particulate count would go up. But there was no consistency."
And there was a period during the 40-hour, five-day test when the levels of particulates went a notch above the federal limit of a tenth of a pound of fine particulates for every million British thermal units that the 2,000-degree power boilers generate.
In other words, an almost infinitesimal amount of particles emitted from the plant's 250-foot-tall smokestacks stopped what years of court hearings, public outcry and immense political pressure couldn't.
All that's left of the mill's efforts to conduct a two-week tire test burn are piles of shredded tires, reams of scientific data and an enormous helping of ill will.
Not to mention an uncertain amount of fine particulates that could be lodged in the lungs of residents downwind of the hulking paper mill.
Most of those residents live in Vermont. The Ticonderoga mill is situated just several hundred yards across the shores of Lake Champlain from Addison County, and almost all of the opposition to the test burn came from this side of the lake.
"Look, this is horrible stuff we're talking about," said Dr. Jack Mayer, a Middlebury pediatrician who is a member of People for Less Pollution, a major opponent of the tire burn. "The public health lesson is that humans are exquisitely sensitive to pollution at low levels. What has made this battle particularly odious to so many people in Vermont is that we were having this risk imposed. Not only were we not going to have any gains from it, but we were being used as guinea pigs for this macabre experiment."
That sentiment guided Vermont's opposition, which began the day after International Paper announced its intention to conduct a two-week trial in which up to three tons of shredded tires an hour would be used to fuel its 40-megawatt power boilers.
In September 2003, Vermont Gov. James Douglas registered his opposition, in spite of his pro-business Republican credentials. Soon after, the state's congressional delegation led by Sen. James Jeffords and a host of Vermont politicians also condemned the test.
It was fitting that Jeffords was among the leaders of the opposition: He is ending his three-decade political career right where he began it – in a protracted fight against International Paper.
Jeffords, who took on the paper mill when he was Vermont's attorney general for water pollution problems, last week demanded that the plant and the federal Environmental Protection Agency release the data collected during the test to the public.
"Though the tire burn was of short duration, we remain concerned about its public health and environmental consequences," said a letter to the EPA released by Jeffords' office. "We are particularly troubled that local doctors reported that residents of Addison County … experienced respiratory difficulties at rates much higher than expected during the trial burn."
Douglas, too, wants to be sure that the ultimate effects of the test burn, which didn't come close to three tons of shredded tires an hour over the 40 hours of testing, are made public.
On that score, plant officials agree with Vermont's public officials. According to Wadsworth, the data, collected by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, its Vermont counterpart, the EPA and an independent lab hired by the company, will be analyzed and made available in the coming months.
"We learned a lot, we gathered a lot of good quality data, giving us invaluable information about our fuel mix and emissions controls," Wadsworth said.
One fact seems clear: The mill's pollution control devices couldn't keep particulates from escaping into the air once tires were added to the other fuel sources the plant has used for decades – No. 6 fuel oil and tree bark.
That revelation has Vermont officials glibly saying, "I told you so."
Attorney General William Sorrell, who had attempted to block the test burn altogether, but was unable to get injunctions in New York state and federal appeals courts, was practically giddy last week.
"This is such good news for clean air in Vermont," he said. "It's unfortunate that they had to go ahead and burn tires before they paid attention to what we were saying all along."
What they were saying – and what IP wasn't buying – was that the plant should install a multi-million dollar device called an electrostatic precipitator, a state-of-the-art pollution control device used by dozens of plants that rely solely on tire-derived fuels or a combination of coal and shredded tires.
International Paper wasn't discounting the use of the electrostatic precipitator altogether; the company wanted to conduct the test before deciding if it was necessary.
This week, Douglas, too, was gloating over the news.
"I'll say it, 'We told them so,'" Douglas said last week. "This is exactly what Vermonters have been saying for years. The vast majority of us who have expressed concern have not opposed the test absolutely, but only with the proper pollution control equipment. It is unfortunate that this has required so much time, energy and stress, and I hope that this is the end of the line, so that those of us who live in Addison County can begin to breathe easier."
Some have suggested that Vermont officials should have honored the judgment of New York and federal environmental regulators who saw fit – after numerous public hearings, thousands of pages of data and hundreds of witnesses – to grant the mill's request. After all, International Paper promised to halt the test if any of the dozens of toxins produced in the mill's boilers exceeded its permitted levels.
As it happened, according to the plant, none of the other pollutants – such as sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide – approached the limits. But the eighth-of-a-grain-of-salt sized particulates did.
And the burn was stopped.
"I've heard all the 'I told you so' comments from Vermont," Wadsworth said. She wouldn't go so far as to say that she, too, could make the same argument, that the company would halt its experiment if even one of its pollution levels was exceeded. "Let's just say that they had their opinions, and we had ours. Some of their opinions have been upheld, and hopefully, we'll learn together."
For the time being, the plant – which employs about 640 people and funnels $200 million into the area's economy every year – has learned that it can't, in an economically feasible way, use shredded tires.
For the time being, the plant will continue to turn 4.8 million pounds of trees into 1.6 million pounds of paper a day, most of it high-end products used in color copiers and laser printers.
"We make the high-end, value-added printing and communications papers," Wadsworth said. And while that market in the United States is relatively flat, she said that Ticonderoga still substantially contributes to International Paper's overall bottomline.
"We're a very important part of the overall International Paper portfolio," she said.
Contact Darren Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org