Paper industry faces cleanups across U.S.

As the pulp and paper industry shifts away from chlorine bleaching, the chlor-alkali plants that used mercury to extract the chlorine from salt are shutting down and becoming the focus of environmental cleanup efforts.

But because the plants operated for different lengths of time, with different levels of care in different environments, it is difficult to compare them, said Clay Patmont, partner at Anchor Environmental LLC in Seattle. Patmont and his firm have done environmental consulting work for Georgia-Pacific West Inc., the city of Bellingham and the Port of Bellingham.

Patmont said it would be a mistake to compare the levels of mercury contamination at G-P in Bellingham with the worst-contaminated sites in the country, where cleanup costs could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Two of those sites, LCP Chemicals Inc. in Brunswick, Ga., and Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, N.Y., were held up as examples by downtown real estate redeveloper Doug Tolchin, a G-P critic. Patmont said both sites present challenges far beyond the G-P site in Bellingham.

According to an online summary by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, LCP Chemicals "lost" about 190 tons of mercury spilled at its Georgia plant site, much of which spilled into neighboring streams and marshlands.

Mercury contamination at G-P has been estimated at 10 to 20 tons.

The LCP plant shut down in 1994 after Georgia regulators revoked its waste discharge permit amid rising concern about its pollution levels. Seven company officials were convicted of criminal violations of environmental laws, and the company's chief operating officer received a 46-month prison sentence.

The 550-acre LCP site was declared a federal Superfund site, and the initial cleanup costs were $55 million, with a possible $100 million more in sediment cleanup work still under study.

At Onondaga Lake, Honeywell International could face a $2.3 billion expense to remove an estimated 82 tons of mercury dumped by a predecessor company, Allied-Signal Inc. That is the most expensive of a series of cleanup alternatives that New York state officials are pondering as part of an ongoing effort to clean up the 4.6-mile long lake, considered one of the nation's dirtiest after decades of industrial pollution and sewage discharge from the city of Syracuse. The lake was declared unsafe for swimming in 1940.

Chip Hilarides, G-P's Bellingham general manager, said a more comparable cleanup site might be the Squamish, B.C., chlor-alkali plant site that ceased operations in 1991. Nexen Inc., a Canadian oil and gas company, completed the cleanup of that site in 2003 at a cost of about $33.6 million, according to an online press release from the B.C. Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection.

That cleanup involved removal of contaminated soil and sludge that filled 1,700 rail cars.

Patmont said he feels comfortable with the Port of Bellingham's $41.6 million estimate for cleanup of the main G-P plant site and Whatcom Waterway. The area has been subject to nearly 10 years of environmental testing and study, and the level of contaminants and their whereabouts are not in doubt, he said.

According to its annual and quarterly reports filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, G-P is involved in environmental clean-up work at 173 sites. The Atlanta-based corporation has more than $200 million set aside in an environmental liability account to cover likely known expenses in connection with those projects.

Given its financial resources, why shouldn't G-P be forced to pay its own cleanup costs here? Port Executive Director Jim Darling said the company would be doing that, indirectly.

"One way to look at it is, they are paying by giving the community the value of the property," he said.