Report: Consumer Protection

Pulp Fiction

Chemical Hazard Reduction at Pulp and Paper Mills
Released by: TexPIRG

Across the country, pulp and paper mills,  petroleum refineries, chemical plants and  other industrial facilities use and store large  amounts of hazardous chemicals that could be  released in the event of an accident or  terrorist attack.  Releases at these chemical  facilities could endanger thousands or even  millions of people working and living in  nearby communities.  According to the  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),  more than 100 facilities each would endanger  at least one million people in a worst-case  chemical release.  Another 3,000 facilities each  would endanger at least 10,000 people or  more.     

Many of these chemical facilities can eliminate  the health and safety risks they pose to local  communities.  Chemical facilities often have  multiple options for their production  processes, and some of these options are  inherently safer than others.  Facilities that  reduce or eliminate the use of hazardous  chemicals, or that make changes to storage  pressure or other processes, can remove the  potential of a hazardous chemical release,  making the facilities inherently safer and less  appealing targets for terrorists.     

Pulp and paper mills stand as a salient  example of chemical facilities that can  implement readily available safer alternatives  to eliminate or reduce unnecessary risks to  workers and local communities in the event of  an accidental or deliberate chemical release.     

Chlorine and chlorine dioxide are used as  bleaching agents in many pulp and papermaking processes.  The dominant industry  processes are the elemental chlorine (EC)  process, which relies on chlorine gas, or the  elemental chlorine-free (ECF) process, which  uses chlorine dioxide, a gas with hazards  similar to chlorine.    

In the event of an accidental or deliberate  release, chlorine and chlorine dioxide present  serious hazards.  Chlorine, used as a chemical  weapon, is highly toxic and corrosive.  It  irritates the mucous membranes of the nose,  throat, and lungs, and causes breathing  difficulties, violent coughing, acute  tracheobronchitis, and chemical pneumonia.  Exposure to relatively low levels of chlorine  can be fatal.  Similarly, chlorine dioxide causes  shortness of breath, bronchitis, and  emphysema. Acute exposure can cause  potentially fatal pulmonary edema.    

To estimate the number of Americans at risk  of injury or death in the event of a chlorine or  chlorine dioxide release at a pulp and paper  mill, we examined Risk Management Plans  submitted to EPA by the owners or operators  of each facility.  These plans, legally required  under the Clean Air Act, estimate the distance  that an extremely hazardous chemical could  travel off-site in the event of a release, and the  number of people living in the affected area  or “vulnerability zone.”  This data analysis  revealed that pulp and paper mills that  continue to rely on chlorine or chlorine  dioxide endanger millions of people.     

Key findings include:   

  • In the United States, 16 pulp and paper  mills still use chlorine and 58 use chlorine  dioxide in their processing or store it onsite.      
  • These 74 facilities use and store almost 4  million pounds of chlorine and chlorine  dioxide, endangering 5.7 million people  living in 23 different states.
  • The states with the most pulp and paper  mills using or storing chlorine and  chlorine dioxide include Alabama with  seven, Florida and Georgia with six, and  Louisiana, Maine, and South Carolina with  five each.   
  • In Ohio, two pulp and paper mills place a  total of almost 1.3 million people at risk.   In Tennessee, three pulp and paper mills  endanger a total of 730,000 people.  Pulp  and paper mills that continue to rely on  chlorine and chlorine dioxide endanger at  least 400,000 people in Florida, Louisiana,  South Carolina, and Washington.     
  • A single pulp and paper facility that uses  or stores chlorine or chlorine dioxide can  endanger a large number of people.  In  Ohio, a single facility places 1.2 million  people at risk in a worst-case chemical  release; in Tennessee, a single facility  endangers more than 600,000 people.   

The pulp and paper industry has readily  available safer alternatives to chlorine and  chlorine dioxide bleaching that can reduce or  eliminate these risks. The most commonly  used chlorine-free bleaching process, typically  called a totally chlorine-free (TCF) process, is  oxygen based and uses either hydrogen  peroxide or ozone. TCF bleaching protects  worker and community health and safety by  eliminating the presence of chlorine, chlorine  dioxide, and highly toxic chlorinated  byproducts, such as dioxins and furans.   Another equally safe technology is processed  chlorine-free bleaching (PCF), which also  eliminates the need for chlorine and chlorine  dioxide.  TCF material originates from virgin  pulp, whereas the PCF process uses recycled  material.    

Despite the safety and environmental benefits  associated with chlorine-free bleaching, most  pulp and paper mills have not switched to  these safer and more secure technologies.   In order to adequately address the recognized  safety and security threats created by facilities  using and storing dangerous chemicals, the  United States needs a comprehensive policy  dedicated to making its pulp and paper  mills—and all chemical plants—safer. 

This  policy should:    

  • Eliminate or reduce the use of highly  toxic chemicals by switching to safer  technologies where feasible.  Safer  technologies are the most effective way to  secure facilities and to protect workers  and communities in the event of a  deliberate or accidental chemical release.   Pulp and paper mills can eliminate or  significantly reduce the use of chlorine  and chlorine dioxide by implementing  readily available safer alternatives.     
  • Maintain and expand public access to  basic information about chemical use  and hazards at individual facilities.  In  order to evaluate, understand, and  respond to potential chemical threats,  workers and communities must have  access to information about the use,  storage, and release of hazardous  chemicals.     
  • Preserve the ability of states and  localities to address chemical facility  safety and security.  Threats at chemical  facilities vary by community and state.   Confronting these threats requires  collaboration between local, state, and  federal officials.  In order to promote  effective collaboration, states and localities  must be allowed to establish safety and  security programs that are more protective  than federal requirements.  In the absence  of a comprehensive and permanent  federal program, states including  Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and  North Carolina already have adopted  measures to improve chemical security  and safety within their borders.    

By adopting safer technologies, chemical  facilities can achieve a number of benefits.  

For example:    

  • Safety and security reliability. Hazard  reduction makes chemical and industrial  processes inherently safer by reducing or  eliminating the use of highly toxic,  volatile, or flammable chemicals or by  limiting the quantity of these substances  used or stored on-site.  From a security  perspective, eliminating the source of the  threat can make facilities less attractive  targets for terrorists.     
  • Improved environmental performance.  In addition to safety and security benefits,  safer technologies also can improve  environmental performance at chemical  facilities.  Using hazardous chemicals in  production and manufacturing processes  often results in toxic byproducts or  pollution.  For example, chlorine-based  pulp and paper bleaching processes  generate dioxins and furans.  Chlorinefree technologies eliminate these toxic  pollutants by taking chlorine out of the  equation.     
  • Operating cost savings.  Although  switching to safer technologies may  require an initial capital investment, these  technologies can offset recurring  operating costs.  For example, pulp and  paper mills that eliminate the use of  chlorine or chlorine dioxide can achieve  significant cost savings associated with  pollution control, workplace safety  requirements, emergency response,  employee training, security costs, and  safety equipment.  In the long-term,  avoiding or reducing these annually  recurring costs can save facilities money.       

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