The following is an interview conducted on April 1, 2014 between Ellen O’Shea of the Jefferson
Community Rights Coalition of Jefferson County and Gretchen Brewer, Executive director of PT Airwatchers.
Summary: Gretchen Brewer and Tamar Lowell of PT Airwatchers came to a Jeff Co. Community Rights Coalition (CCRC) General Assembly meeting on March 23, 2014 to give our group an update the efforts of PT Airwatchers to bring the mill to higher standards of keeping the air, water and soil clean around the mill.
EO: Gretchen, How long has PT Airwatchers been organized and why did they form?
Gretchen: PT Airwatchers was organized in 2007 to respond to ongoing efforts to organize
Region view of Admiralty inlet and PT Mill
people. A hearing held by the Washington State Department of Ecology to hear testimony about a proposed renewal of the air operating permit at the Mill really got people ready for action. People in this community have been complaining about pollution from the mill for year. The smell from the mill is usually the first thing people notice. There was a lot of testimony at the hearing against the renewal of the air operating permit. The Department of Ecology ignored the input. So we organized our group-PT Airwatchers to address the issues of air, water and land pollution by the Port Townsend Paper Corporation.
EO: What motivated you and your group to get organized?
Gretchen: We did our homework. We were looking for real scientific data that would tell us about the smell. We found that the smell from the mill comes equally from the mill stacks and the basin pollution. We found that there is legal precedence in that that kind of pollution that could affect people’s health and livelihood is called “chemical trespass”.
Chemical trespass is chemicals spread from somebody else’s activities which impact your life and property. Our groups have spent thousands of hours researching this pollution and also the mill and how it operates. We wanted to know the details. It was a great effort by many people. PT Airwatchers has more than 500 members, and there is a changing core of 100 people doing the research and organizing events such as educating the community.
EO: Tell me about the Port Townsend Mill, what do they manufacture and how do they generate income?
Gretchen: The main product of the Port Townsend mill is the manufacturing of unbleached Kraft pulp. The pulp is sold to make corrugated cardboard. The pulp is made from local trees that are known for their extra-fine fibers such as Western Red Cedar. The mill has been buying the slash of clear-cuts since 1929. The mill also runs a Biomass burner to generate electricity. Although originally set up with a promise of cheaper electricity to the local community, the electricity is actually sold to the bigger markets for higher revenue. They already generate 14.9 megawatts to sell. So what they do is buy power that they need from Bonneville Power at sub-market rates and then sell the power they generate back to the power grid at market rates or higher. They sell at a higher rate because they claim they are making green energy. It is another way they generate income.
They also receive a subsidy from the US government because they are designated as “green energy” producers. Two years ago California stopped buying this power from the grid because the state passed a law to buy local first. The state would buy energy from California producers first. This kind of put a crimp in the mill’s plan to sell “green energy”. Fracking of natural gas across the country has driven down energy prices and the need for electricity has decreased.
They make money by collecting government subsidies. They get a tax subsidy for using forest products.
They receive a farm subsidy from the Commerce Department for processing “black liquor”. Black liquor is the waste product from the kraft process when digesting pulpwood into paper pulp removing lignin, hemicelluloses and other extractives from the wood to free the cellulose fibers. The black liquor is mixed with fuel oil and it is then burned for energy. This action qualifies them for an alternative energy subsidy. They receive a Renewable Energy Credit or REC. They were sued by the WTO for unfair competition and the federal government stopped the subsidy. The federal government renamed the credit to keep from being sued. The subsidy was then moved to the Department of Agriculture – farm subsidy department who reinstated the subsidy. In a nutshell they get a subsidy for reducing their own dependency on oil but then they mix the Black Liquor they burn with a fossil fuel.
They also make money burning demolition waste from many sources. They also reprocess fuel oil at the mill.
EO: So what did PT Airwatchers find when they began to research the mill and its smell?
Gretchen: We found a general problem with waste disposal. The process of getting rid of manufacturing waste is affecting the water around the mill, the land on site stores ash from the mill, and the air over the mill and the community. The ash stored near the mill site is a by-product of burning vegetation, metal and other trash. There is also the issue of the amount of resources they use, like the 12 million to 14 million gallons of free water the mill uses every day. Citizens including businesses use less than 900,000 gallons per day. We also pay for the chlorination of the water they use. The water contract with the city is up for renewal in 2020. Our group will have to monitor the situation at the mill and be ready with good testimony. We just want the mill to pay its fair share.
Our group was not only concerned about the pollution from the mill but who would clean it up once the State and Federal government designates the area as a cleanup site. It was only a matter of time because of lack of proper disposal that the waters and land would be designated as toxic. We began to research if the Port Townsend Pulp Corporation had sufficient financial assurances in place to cover cleanup and that taxpayers would not be stuck with it.
EO: So what did you discover about the pollution of the waters around the mill. Surely local fisherman and oyster and other seafood businesses might be concerned about this? Admiralty Bay is known for its geoduck harvest. What kind of harm is coming to this seafood industry? Is anyone testing the sea life?
Gretchen: The pollution of Port Townsend Bay, Admiralty Inlet and the Salish Sea are very much of concern to our group. The mill uses the bay for mill run off. The closer you get to the mill, the more polluted the waters become. The mill has established an Aerated Stabilization Basin also known as “the pond” to dump its fluid waste runoff. The pond is a 35-acre mid-sized lake located on the shore side of the mill. It was dredged a few years ago and there is no record of what happened to the sludge. The mill set up a so-called treatment of the pond. They implemented an oxygenation trial where they added extra 02 to the pond. The O2 was pumped into the mill runoff fluids in order to increase biological activity. They hoped that his activity would break down toxins in the fluids before it was discharged into the bay. The process did not work. Instead, there was an increase of hydrogen sulfide which also increased the strong smell from the mill. In the process of injecting O2 into the water the anaerobic bacteria took over and continue biological action produced methane and hydrogensulfide.
The pond and its sludge have never been tested by outside sources. However that may change soon. Outside sources may be put in place to test and monitor the contents of that sludge and water. And then the results of this testing will be made available to the public.
There is also the issue of the ash waste – the mill burns wood and other waste and that creates ash. It is stored in a landfill near the mill on about 50 acres. Our research shows that the ash is very acid and the mills permit to store the ash ran out in 2009. It is being regulated as limited hazardous waste. Ash from the boiler has a PH of 13 – basically it is like drain cleaner. It is very basic lye. It should be designated as hazardous waste.
Port Townsend Paper Company (PTPC) has operated an unlined landfill for disposal of ash and lime grits from its mill since 1983. In April 2011, The Washington Department of Ecology recommended to Jefferson County Public Health department that the agencies begin working with Port Townsend Paper Company to transition the landfill to a permit under the limited purpose landfill requirements of the Solid Waste Handling Standards. This could include re-establishing groundwater monitoring and financial assurance for the facility.
And in March of this year Port Townsend Paper Company revealed plans for an addition to their process that is a method of refining fibers to make a new product. We don’t know much about this. The permit public comment period is closed. The public wants a public hearing with the Washington State Department of Ecology and they want it to be held in Port Townsend so people can attend. The Department of Ecology said they would decide in April whether they will hold public hearings or not.
EO: PT Airwatchers just lost an appeal to force the State Department of Ecology to create an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the mill site. Can you explain what happened with that process? Is there any recourse?
Gretchen: If that appeal would have been successful, the Department of Ecology would have had to show that the mill will not have an adverse affect on the environment. They would have to show numbers, testing results and other information and it would have to been presented clearly to the public and others.
The appeal was lost because it took so long for the courts to respond. The original complaint was made before PT Airwatchers was able to learn the complexity and damages from the mill process. We know a lot more now. Since that time of filing the appeal in 2010, PT Airwatchers has learned a great deal. We are educating ourselves on every facet of the process and learning more and more about environmental law. During the appeal process, the State Department of Ecology was asked to require testing of the mill site, and each level of the appeal the court differed back to the State Department of Ecology who differed to industry.
The appeal was then taken to the Washington State Supreme Court which ignored the impact on forest and forest soil and also on CO2 sequestering issue. Industry has a fantasy that C02 put into the air differs according to what you are burning.
EO: I am interested in the issue of Carbon Sequestration and I found the following explanation in wiki pages:
“Carbon sequestration means capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere or capturing anthropogenic (human) CO2 from large-scale stationary sources like power plants before it is released to the atmosphere. Once captured, the CO2 gas (or the carbon portion of the CO2) is put into long-term storage. Forests are major sources of Co2 sequestration. When forests are clearcut, the level of CO2 released into the atmosphere goes up and is a large source of pollution and destruction of the Ozone layer around our planet “
Gretchen: The Washington State Supreme Court ruled that burning trees is less damaging that burning fossil trash or other substrates. Other parts of the country have ruled differently on this subject. They (other state courts) are starting to understand that fallacy of the Biogenic C02 arguments.
“Biogenic carbon dioxide emissions are defined as emissions from a stationary source directly resulting from the combustion or decomposition of biologically-based materials other than fossil fuels.”
The mill planned addition to the Biomass burner was to support massive clearcutting on the Olympic Peninsula by burning the slash from clearcuts. The clearcuts would be “cleaned up” using large equipment that would pull out the roots and slash of trees and vegetation, leaving the land to be disrupted permanently.
EO: What can we do to make real change on this issue? If the courts won’t support us, then how do we keep our beautiful place on the earth from being trashed?
Gretchen: If we want to protect ourselves from the expanded Biomass operations of the mill, it is up to citizens. We need to put constant pressure on local powers. Citizen action is needed; maybe a “Community Bill of Rights” that would have legal teeth, all those things is needed now. We have to be vigilant. We should have leaders that support the Precautionary Principal before a project is planned. The planners and industry would have to show that the project will not harm the people and the environment.
The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action.
Right now our leaders and the courts have said that waste is not waste if it is being sold as a commodity.
PT Airwatchers is not giving up. We are part of an important lawsuit that was filed jointly with Green Peace and the Center for Biological Diversity. The suit filed in 2011 in the US District Court Northern District of California would force the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to update emission limits or NSPS (New Source Performance Standards) on Kraft Pulp Mills. The EPA is supposed to update the NSPS every 7 years. The agency has not conducted an update NSPS on pulp mills for 21 years.
New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) are pollution control standards issued by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The term is used in the Clean Air Act Extension of 1970 (CAA) to refer to air pollution emission standards, and in the Clean Water Act (CWA) referring to standards for discharges of industrial wastewater to surface waters.
The Court ruled in favor of a joint group of attorneys that would develop an agreement with a strict timeline in implementing updated NSPS for Kraft Pulp Mills. On March 13, 2014 the EPA issued a final NSPS that will help us. If the mill moves to replace any old equipment, it will have to meet the new standard.
Final Amendments were distributed by the EPA on March 23, 2014. Here is a link to that report. http://www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/pulp/nsps/CR_kraft_pulp_mills_3-13-14%20final.pdf
EO: That is really good news. Much appreciation goes to your group. It really does take persistence and deep study of how the courts, law and process work doesn’t it? Is there anything else coming our way that would help us monitor our air, waters and land?
Gretchen: Long–term monitoring of possible pollution is what I have been asking for. This equipment is new technology and I am hopeful that we soon will have accurate data about pollution in our community.
Link to ORCAA article on issues of Ultrafine particle pollution- http://www.orcaa.org/air/ultrafine-study-proposal
EO: Gretchen, what does PT Airwatchers need to stay active and viable?
Gretchen: We need donations to help pay for stamps and legal expenses and other expenses that come from being an advocacy group. And, we need a webmaster. The website needs constant updates. We need people to show up at hearings and don’t let up on the pressure to get this mill site cleaned up. That would really help us.
Here is a link to the PT Airwatchers Website: http://ptairwatchers.org/
Update as of April 4, 2014 – Port Townsend Paper company announced it will not seek expansion of its Biomass burner. Here is a link to an article in the Peninsula Daily News – http://www.peninsuladailynews.com/article/20140404/NEWS/304049966/port-townsend-paper-corp-drops-biomass-expansion-plans