Maine’s pulp and paper industry says that a reported increase in the release of toxic chemicals into the state’s environment is a sign that the industry is rebounding from the recession.
The latest annual Toxic Release Inventory report compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that 9.6 million pounds of chemicals were released by 84 Maine mills in 2010, an increase of 1.14 million pounds over the previous year.
State environmental officials say that the releases still fall within guidelines, they don’t jeopardize the health of residents, and emissions are still lower than they were a few years ago.
“I think it’s good news because we’re making a lot of paper again and bringing people back to work,” said John Williams, president of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association. “About 7,000 people are directly employed in Maine mills, and five times that number are in jobs related to the paper industry: truckers and loggers and other jobs not directly in the mills.”
Williams said several mills closed at the peak of the recession in 2009, but the only one that remained shut was the smaller Wausau Paper Co. mill in Jay. When paper production increased in 2010, so did emissions, he said.
Across the United States, 3.93 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the environment, a 16 percent increase from 2009, according to the report.
State officials said the emissions still meet the standards required to keep the air healthy.
“Mainers should not be alarmed by an increase in reported releases from 2009 to 2010,” said Melanie Loyzim, director of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Air Quality.
She said the numbers do not “represent an actual increased risk to the health of Maine people or our environment and does not represent an overall increase when compared to more than only one year of data.”
Williams said pulp and paper mills recorded the first drop in production in years in 2008 and 2009 after being consistent for about 10 years. They went from producing 3.8 million tons of paper product in 2007 to 2.9 million tons in 2009, the lowest level since the late 1970s. That forced mills to lay off workers and shut down machines.
“A lot of our paper we make here in Maine gets sold to be made into magazines and catalogs,” Williams said.
“With the recession, there just wasn’t as much advertising and people weren’t buying magazines, so we in Maine made less paper in 2009. It bounced back in 2010. I don’t have the numbers for 2011, but my guess is it will go back to what it traditionally was in other years.”
There are no federal outdoor standards for toxic pollutants, so the state’s air-quality bureau has had to rely on guidelines provided by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Loyzim said. The state monitors the air for toxins in Portland, Rumford, Presque Isle, Lewiston and Bangor.
Loyzim said the state monitored for 28 toxic air pollutants until late 2011 when it expanded its list of monitored pollutants to 53.
Data gathering is not completed for the expanded list, she said, but monitoring data for the 28 pollutants in 2011 and earlier showed that Maine only consistently exceeded the guideline levels for acrolein, which is produced by combustion, from sources such as motor vehicles and residential wood burning. Acrolein was identified by the EPA as a primary respiratory risk-driver for all states in the 2005 National Air Toxics Assessment, which was completed in spring 2011.
Loyzim said the federal guideline level for acrolein is 100 times lower than Maine’s detection standard.
Abby King, toxics policy advocate for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, isn’t satisfied with the explanations offered by state officials.
King said the report shows that the volume of toxic pollutants reaching Maine wildlife and people, particularly children and vulnerable populations, has increased.
She said toxic environmental exposure causes cancer and other illness, learning disabilities, and reproductive damage and threatens the health and growth of wildlife populations.
“This shows that we need to be vigilant about pollution prevention and ensure that Maine and the federal government is better able to restrict the use, production and release of toxic chemicals,” King said.
Childhood illnesses associated with toxic environmental exposures costs Maine at least $380 million a year, according to the 2010 Economic Assessment of Children’s Health and the Environment in Maine, a report published in the Maine Policy Review by Mary Davis, an economist and an adjunct assistant professor of economics at the University of Maine.
King said state governments have taken it upon themselves to address the production, use and release of toxics, but it isn’t enough. The federal government must do more to reduce exposure to toxic pollution, she said.
Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Mechele Cooper can be contacted at 621-5663 or at: