Who Says Toxic Sludge is Good for You?

The Provincial Pulp Mill Sludge Committee has been meeting regularly since September 1996, but resolution of the pulp mill sludge disposal issue has been stymied by industry’s refusal to provide the committee with research to answer legitimate questions. Ministry of Environment Pollution Prevention Manager Harry Vogt called the committee to develop a consensus recommendation for the government on the sludge disposal. Groups represented include pulp workers’ unions, pulp mills, the Council of Forest Industries, Environment Canada, West Coast Environmental Law, and Reach for Unbleached!

Sludge disposal is new for many B.C. mills, because it was not until the 1990s that secondary treatment systems on effluent pipes were installed. These systems have prevented thousands of tonnes of toxic organochlorines and other deadly compounds from being dumped into rivers and the ocean by at least one half from late 1980 levels. Now, the mills want to spread the resultant sludge in the fields, forests and parks of the province. Currently many mills burn sludge, resulting in airborne sludge-based pollutants, while some mills continue to store the waste in landfills.

Compounds of concern are possibly present in primary and secondary kraft sludge. These compounds, some of which are bioaccumulative and move up the food chain, are known and/or are suspected to have a range of effects, from toxic to mutagenic to hormone-disruptive impacts. Many of them have both a chlorinated and non-chlorinated variant of concern. Industry has agreed to testing for some of the compounds of concern.

At present there are only a few land-spreading schemes in motion in North America. In Europe, due to stringent regulations to prevent the accumulation of heavy metals where people have farmed for hundreds of years, the practice is not accepted. In Ontario, a little recycling plant sludge is spread on an experimental basis; in Alberta totally- chlorine free newsprint mill sludge is composted for several months and then spread. In B.C., most mills and regions are proceeding with great caution and some common sense.

The most common practice is the Lower Mainland, where permits approve sludge spreading from the chlorine-bleaching mills of Scott Paper, mixed with GVRD sewage sludge. Britannia Mines uses Howe Sound solid waste in an attempt to control acid drainage (kraft mill wastes contain much lime). Newstech Recycling in Coquitlam sends some of its sludge to Instant Lawns Turf Farm (1994) Ltd. and some to the Douglas Lake Cattle Company. After spirited community opposition and an appeal ruling requiring more testing, MacMillan Bloedel in Powell River has, at least temporarily, withdrawn its application to spread sludge and other wastes in the forest.

Celgar, in Castlegar, has sent kraft sludge to Cominco, doubtless in another attempt to control acid generation, and has had several small permits to dump its kraft sludge on agricultural land, some of which is now, we are told, for sale.
Caveat emptor!

Quesnel River Pulp, a chlorine-free thermomechanical mill, is experimenting with spreading its sludge on agricultural land. Burning permits are too numerous to name, and often not required. It is notable that Crestbrook Forest Products recently removed the sludge provisions from their application for a co-generation project burning wood waste at the Skookumchuck pulp mill, preferring to divide the application into two separate issues.

Meanwhile, the United States has been rocked by the revelation that hazardous waste from steel mills, pulp mills and chemical plants can be, and is, shipped out of the factory for "recycling" and is recycled into commercial fertilizers with extraordinarily high levels of dioxin, lead, mercury, and many other poisons. Activists in Washington State were recently defeated in an attempt to keep such toxics out of the State’s fertilizer when regulators told the public they were only trying to stay in harmony with "Canadian" compost standards (which are far less stringent than B.C.’s Contaminated Sites Regulation). These standards were apparently declared as a regulation under NAFTA in 1993.

Reach for Unbleached! agrees with industry and government that the ideal solution would be to spread pulp mill sludge, back on the fields and forests, but there is a condition. This would be a sustainable solution, but only if the sludge can be proven clean and safe for workers, future generations, and the environment. For the last year and a half, industry has been asked for proper testing of the sludge for more than dioxin and metals. If such testing has been done, the results have not been shared.

It is not known what chemicals are in the sludge and what the long term impact on the environment might be. Interestingly, a similar research proposal in Maine in 1988 was stymied when scientists became frustrated by the stalling tactics of International Paper and quit. The longer industry refuses to do the testing, the more convincing it is that the research needs to be done.

Nonetheless, industry and government are moving ahead with development of a "guideline" which allows "clean" sludge to be spread everywhere, even on residential properties. As a result, you will not know, when you buy land in B.C., if it has been treated with pulp mill sludge, so you will not know whether to avoid crops or livestock which are sensitive to particular contaminants. Please let your MLA and your local press know that this irresponsible and dangerous tactic is unacceptable. Tell your MLA that a sludge spreading moratorium is needed until independent research has been conducted. Proper precautions must be taken to protect our health. Contact: Reach for Unbleached! Foundation, Box 39, Whaletown,V0P 1Z0, Ph/fax: 250-935-6992, dbroten@rfu.org, http://www.rfu.org/

Delores Broten