By Delores Broten
The Reach for Unbleached Foundation has published a comprehensive account of its work on the issue of pulp mill sludge disposal in British Columbia, spanning three decades in the Sludge Files. It is all there – live links to what test results we gleaned, newspaper clippings, committee minutes, reports and rebuttals.
The extraordinary file was compiled by Board member and Secretary Tammy Morris, who served her own years of involvement in the struggle. Reach for Unbleached! hopes that the documents will help other activists in their local or national work on the issue, in Canada or abroad, all modern pulp mills being fundamentally equal.
Reading the report served as a personal reminder of the enormous amount of work we put into that cause over the time I served as executive director. It also served as a cherished reminder of all the good friends and allies we worked with, from the Pulp Paper and Woodworkers to West Coast Environmental Law staff and of course, our own Reach! people, like Jay Ritchlin and Miranda Holmes.
The problem actually started from the successful populist campaign to regulate pulp mill water pollution. Once you have water treatment, you have sludge. So sludge disposal was a new issue for our mills.
In 1988, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) of Maine (where the mills were already treating their effluent) was part of a multi-stakeholder committee alongside representatives from government, industry, and the environmental sector. The task was to examine a request from International Paper (IP) to land-apply process waste from its kraft mills. The NRDC initially required some baseline testing for the waste material, but IP was never able to provide acceptable results. The NRDC request became the model from which Reach for Unbleached! was to work for the next 20 years.
Through the 1990s, what we called “sludge busting” proceeded apace, with permit appeals, public meetings, reports, and workshops. In March 1996, mill workers had discovered that waste sludges were being quietly removed from on-site locations at different mills in BC. Upon further investigation, they learned that industry management, along with UBC researchers, had been granted Ministry of Environment approvals for sludge testing and Ministry of Agriculture approvals to experiment with alternative feeds for cattle. More sludge busting ensued.
Eventually the Ministry of Environment set up a committee (more reports) but when it finally seemed the desired testing was within reach, the forest industry quit, prompting Reach to issue the following alert. To this day the situation is unchanged.
Industry calls it “bio solids.” The government calls it pulp mill sludge. We call it Industrial Waste. Provincial stakeholder discussions about how to test and regulate the spreading of this waste on farmland and forests have broken down because the Council of Forest Industries refuses to talk anymore. Reach for Unbleached is warning communities and workers to be on the alert for new applications to spread this industrial waste across the BC landscape.
There has been no thorough independent testing of this material to see what’s really in it. There has been no testing to see if this industrial waste causes genetic mutations or harms the hormone system of wildlife exposed to it. There has been no testing to see what gasses off the sludge to harm the workers who have to handle it. What we do know is that pulp mill sludge is a complex and changeable mixture of dozens or even hundreds of compounds, some of them well known like heavy metals, dioxin and other organochlorines, some created by the bacteria in the treatment ponds and probably unknown to science. Environment Canada scientists in the Maritimes think nonylphenol compounds are responsible for the decline in eastern salmon returns. We know that the pulp and paper industry uses one third of the nonylphenols in Canada, and we suspect these hormone disruptors wind up in the sludge.
We do know that the state of New Hampshire abruptly canceled a sludge spreading program in 1998 after the discovery of unexpected toxic chemicals leaching into groundwater, and that charges are now being laid for spreading hazardous waste. We do know that only mills which do not use chlorine-based bleaching spread their sludge in BC now. Let’s keep it that way!
Words fail to describe the frustration of coming so close to some modern characterization testing of sludge mixtures, after decades of work across North America, only to have it smoothly pulled away by the forest industry with the acquiescence of the provincial Ministry of Environment. All we really were after, for those many years of work, all those reports, all that organizing, all those meetings, was to find out what was in the sludge, and whether it was safe to distribute in the environment, with or without composting. The refusal of industry and government to answer these basic common-sense questions with well-designed unbiased research pretty much provides an answer to those of us with inquiring minds.
If it is now in your lettuce or your beef, well… a lot of questionable chemical exposures go almost unnoticed these days.
Here’s a hint, in case you ever feel the urge to do some Sludge Busting of your own. The biggest point of contention for the mills seemed to be testing for polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), many of which are accepted and regulated as carcinogens. These days I would add endocrine disruptors, especially given the results from the environmental effects monitoring which prove that many mill effluents still have chronic toxicity impacts on fish and other aquatic life. It is a safe assumption that whatever has that impact in effluent also exists in the sludge.
Delores Broten is recovering from a couple of decades spent working on pulp and paper pollution for Reach for Unbleached!