Isle of Wight County, Va., Paper Mill Seeks Pollution Variances

The International Paper mill in Isle of Wight County says it needs the OK to pursue alternatives to state air pollution laws in order to invest millions in environmental improvements at the plant.

Oct. 21—ISLE OF WIGHT, Va. — The International Paper mill in Isle of Wight County says it needs the OK to pursue alternatives to state air pollution laws in order to invest millions in environmental improvements at the plant.

State laws are very specific about how companies have to treat emissions during the papermaking process. The state Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency already gave the company permission to try one alternative approach, and that change saved the company $13 million without an increase in the plant's emissions.

Now the company wants to invest about half of that $13 million on eight additional environmental projects. The measures will reduce air pollution, solid waste, and water and fuel consumption, they say.

"It's a win-win situation for everybody," said Sheryl Raulston, the company's environmental affairs manager. "International Paper wins because we're able to be a stronger, more economically viable citizen."

In March, the DEQ on behalf of International Paper will ask the State Air Pollution Control Board for variances to state regulations including one called New Source Review, which often requires industries to install new environmental controls when upgrading a plant.

In place of New Source Review, the state will set caps on the amount of pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide that the plant may emit, said John Daniel, director of DEQ's Air Division.

"You would set a cap that you knew would protect public health and the environment," Daniel said, "so International Paper can make upgrades without spending so much time applying for permits. It also frees up our staff to work on other things."

International Paper held meetings more than a year ago to get county officials, environmental groups and government regulators thinking about alternatives to traditional environmental rules. Jon Hartley, the county's chief of planning and zoning, sat in on the meetings.

Hartley said it makes sense to let the company save money on one environmental requirement — collecting methanol emissions — in exchange for pursuing eight different projects that will improve the environment.

Air pollution still will be reduced, he said, but with the added benefit of water, solid waste and riverfront projects. For example, one measure to improve the filter screens at the plant's recycling facility would reduce the amount of solid waste taken to the landfill by 8,640 pounds a day and reduce groundwater usage by 100,000 gallons a day.

"We're getting more," Hartley said.

The reason state and federal regulators have been so flexible with International Paper is that the company has a strong enough environmental record to qualify for special government programs. International Paper's Franklin operation is the only paper mill in the mid-Atlantic region that participates in EPA's National Environmental Performance Track program.

Not everyone is happy with the flexible approach to regulations.

A watchdog group called Environmental Defense gives the Franklin mill its worst rating for carcinogenic air pollution, saying the plant released 275,490 pounds of cancer-causing emissions in 2002. Environmental groups have consistently accused the Bush administration of weakening New Source Review at the expense of clean air.

The American Lung Association of Virginia, which was attending International Paper's meetings, stopped participating after expressing concern about the company's request relating to New Source Review, said Donna Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the group.

"At some point, we could no longer be involved," Reynolds said. The association might comment on International Paper's latest proposal after the company presents it to the State Air Pollution Control Board meeting in Virginia Beach in March.

International Paper has made great strides since taking over ownership of the mill, said Tom Griffin, outreach coordinator for DEQ's Pollution Prevention Program. The mill is one of only 21 facilities in Virginia that have received DEQ's top "Environmental Excellence" recognition.

"They decided they had to right that ship 10 years ago, and they've really turned things around," Griffin said.

Jeff Turner, of the Blackwater/Nottoway Riverkeeper Program, said he hopes the deal will encourage International Paper to plant more vegetation along the waterfront to hide old equipment on the property, which sits across from the city of Franklin.

"I really haven't seen much stream restoration," he said. "They replaced a section of the shoreline that was badly eroding with some rock, but they would have had to do that anyway or their train track would have fallen into the river."

There's a two-fold importance to allowing International Paper to be innovative with its pollution control measures, Hartley said.

"We want the company to stay here," he said, adding that the company constitutes 26 percent of the county's tax base. "We also want it to be a good steward of the environment."

© 2004, Daily Press, Newport News, Va. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.