The brownish haze drifted slowly from the northwest and gradually
blended in the afternoon sunshine with another darkish streak moving from the northeast. From his balcony across Howe Sound, a Pacific coast inlet just north of Vancouver, Terry Jacks watched as the polluting haze partially obscured the snowcapped mountains on the sound’s north shore. For 20 years, Jacks has lived in Horseshoe Bay on the south shore and has seen the haze almost daily. But Jacks, a former pop singer whose 1974 release Seasons in the Sun is the sixth-best-selling single record in history, has devoted much of the past four years to a crusade against pollution in the region’s air and water. His main targets have been the Port Mellon pulp mill to the northwest and the Woodfibre pulp mill to the northeast. Said Jacks, spokesman for the 6,500-member Environmental Watch: “When I see the destruction, it makes me feel pretty sick.”
Although the haze from the mills is a visible menace, Jacks says that his concern is the invisible yet dangerous toxins that the mills discharge into Howe Sound. In 1986 and 1987, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered dioxins, the most toxic of manmade substances, and other poisons in waters downstream from five U.S. kraft pulp mills (kraft is a chemical method of pulping). Those mills used chlorine to bleach wood pulp to make white paper products. Further studies by the EPA, Environment Canada and the Swedish government confirmed the presence of the toxins—known as absorbable organic halogens (AOX)—in the effluent of kraft chlorine pulp mills.
In North America, 151 of the more than 750 pulp mills use chlorine—including the mills at Woodfibre and Port Mellon. Indeed, last November, much of the Howe Sound shellfish industry was closed because of dioxin levels. Declared Jacks, 45, a self-proclaimed environmental evangelist: “We have to stop the chlorine bleaching of pulp now.”
In May, his group claimed at least a partial victory when the B.C. government proposed
tough new laws regulating AOX discharges by pulp mills—underscoring public concern over dioxins and other toxins in pulp mill effluent. As the Maclean s/Decima poll indicates, Canadians and Americans both consider the environment a top priority. The Canadian government is developing the first national standards to regulate AOX discharges. And in the United States, the EPA is developing pollution-fighting strategies with the states.
Under the proposed B.C. legislation, the province’s pulp mills will be forced to severely reduce AOX discharges, beginning in 1991 and continuing through 1994. But although environmentalists, especially those in the Howe Sound area, have cautiously welcomed the changes, they are critical of the fact that until then mills will continue to pollute the sound— which has already been ravaged by toxins. On Nov. 30,1988, much of the shellfish industry in the sound was closed after tests confirmed high levels of dioxin in crabs, prawns and shrimps—a ban extended in mid-June. Declared Jacks: “Ironically, they are shutting the fishery—not the source.” And at times, the battle to save the sound has been fierce: on May 8, four days before the province an-
Would you favor or oppose shutting down a maior company which provided many jobs in your community if it was polluting the environment?
nounced the new measures, Greenpeace activists chained themselves to the chlorine unloading dock at the Woodfibre mill and unfurled a banner reading “Stop chlorine use now.” Although the Woodfibre mill, owned by Western Pulp Ltd. Partnership, has instituted a $70-million cleanup program, it will miss the proposed 1991 provincial deadline by a year. However, officials say that the company will be able to comply with the 1994 standard. But the Howe Sound Pulp and Paper Ltd. mill at Port Mellon will comply with the new standards well before the deadlines. After instituting a $1billion restructuring and expansion program, the mill, a joint venture between Vancouver’s Canfor Corp. and Japan’s Oji Paper Co., will meet the new AOX discharge limits by July, 1990—4V2 years ahead of schedule.
Indeed, company officials say that they will use the best technology available. Said Brian Killeen, 39, a marine biologist with Greenpeace in Vancouver: “We have to applaud them for that.” Still, Killeen added, “until construction is completed next July, their discharge is among the heaviest on the coast.” He and Jacks also said that the government’s legislation should have forbidden the companies to pollute at all. Declared Killeen: “It is a good step, but unfortunately the regulations do not follow through to their logical conclusion, which is zero discharge.” That goal may be as hard to realize as a clear view from the balconies of Horseshoe Bay.
HAL QUINN in Horseshoe Bay
he flat, irrigated farmlands crisscross the plateau that stretches out to the east of the Columbia River in southeast Washington state. Before the river turns west toward the ocean, it passes the village of Wallula, about 320 km southeast of Seattle, and the nearby Boise Cascade Corp. Wallula pulp-and-paper mill. Like six other kraft mills in Washington—and the Port Mellon and Woodfibre mills on Howe Sound in
British Columbia—Wallula uses chlorine to bleach wood pulp. And although the mill’s 515 workers—who live in Wallula and other small towns within a 120-km radius—produce about 900 tons of bleached pulp daily, the mill also produces large amounts of toxins. In fact, according to Washington state department of ecology figures published in May, the water at the point in the Columbia River where the Wallula effluent is discharged contained 3.6 units of dioxin for every quadrillion units of water—277 times more than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 1984 recommended criterion for dioxin discharges. Said Shelley Stewart, Greenpeace’s national director for pulp mills in Seattle: “Washington’s mills are pretty good on solid wastes and secondary treatment. But dioxin is another matter, and Wallula is one of the dirtiest.”
In the face of mounting public concern over dioxin pollution, the Wallula mill, like the Howe Sound mills, will soon be forced to clean up. In 1987. Congress amended the Clean Water Act, calling on each state to produce by this year a list of waterways affected by 126 toxic pollutants, among them dioxin, from all facilities— including factories and pulp mills. The states were also told to submit strategies for EPA approval that will result in curbing the discharge of those toxins—and bring polluters into line by 1992. In June, Washington state submitted its list, which included the waterways on which Wallula and the state’s other kraft chlorine-bleaching pulp mills are situated. At the same time, the state submitted its pollution-fighting strategy, which the EPA did not initially approve. Now, Washington has until June, 1990, to revise its strategy to meet
with the EPA’s approval. Polluters will then have until 1993 to meet the new standards.
For Washington state’s polluting pulp mills, those impending regulations will likely mean that they will have to drastically curb their discharges of dioxin—a known carcinogen that is part of the group of toxic chemicals called absorbable organic halogens (AOX). The EPA, whose 1986 and 1987 studies first detected the presence of dioxins in kraft chlorine-bleaching pulp mills, has no authority to enforce its recommended criterion of no more than 0.013 units of dioxin per quadrillion units of water at the point where mill effluent is discharged. But that standard is intended to be used as a guideline by the states—and experts acknowledge that it is a tough one. Explained Dennis Ross, a chemical engineer and environment engineer for Boise Cascade at Wallula: “Present technology can only test down to 10 parts per quadrillion. In another perspective, that is one second in 32,000 years.”
In effect, said Richard Burkhalter, supervisor of the Washington state department of ecology’s industrial division, the message to polluters is that “they have to have a nondetectable limit of dioxin in their effluent.” And Burkhalter added that that is what Washington state intends to accomplish with new regulations. Washington state officials are also developing guidelines to curb other AOX discharges commonly found in the effluent of kraft chlorine-bleaching pulp mills. Officials say that they hope to have those guidelines in place within two years and bring polluters into compliance by 1996. Those measures will bring the pulpand-paper industry in Washington state in step with British Columbia, where the provincial government has developed regulations likely to pass this fall that will severely cut all AOX discharges. And for their part, environmentalists say that the new standards cannot be delayed. Said Greenpeace’s Stewart: “We need to control the whole basket of organochlorines, and they’d better get to it.”
Meanwhile, in the tiny village of Wallula, population 50, the residents have known for years that the mill is fouling the river. Said Bernice Cummings, 77, who along with her husband, Harold, has lived in the village since 1953: “We hear that everything is going to kill us one day. And we heard last month that there were dead salmon floating in the river here below the mill. Their discharge into the river is not as good as it should be.” But Cummings added that among Wallula residents, some of whom work at Boise Cascade, the pollution from the pulp mill is not a big topic of conversation. “We don’t talk about it,” she said. “You have to accept progress in whatever form it comes. I don’t get shook up over it.” Still, environmentalists say that AOX discharges are too high a price to pay for progress. And if toxins are eliminated from mill effluent, perhaps in the Cummings’s lifetime, dead salmon will no longer surface downstream from where they live.
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