Missoula City-County Health Department disappointed by allowance for opacity excessesSmokestack emissions will be more strictly regulated at Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.'s Frenchtown pulp mill, although not as strictly - or inventively - as Missoula health officers would like.
The Montana Board of Environmental Review on Friday approved new smoke-density standards for the mill's kraft recovery boilers, opting for a proposal from Smurfit-Stone over a rule written by the Missoula City-County Health Department.
"This rule is an acceptable compromise," said Bob Boschee, general manager of the mill. "We do not, however, intend to reduce our efforts to minimize emissions."
As approved by the statewide board, the new rule limits the mill's oldest No. 3 boiler to 35 percent opacity - or smoke density - measured over 6 minutes. The larger, newer No. 4 and No. 5 boilers cannot exceed 20 percent opacity, again over 6 minutes. The same limit would hold for any new boilers.
The No. 4 boiler could, however, exceed the limit 6 percent of the time without penalty - as long as the average daily opacity remained at 20 percent. The No. 5 boiler could exceed the limit 3 percent of the time.
The built-in, 6-percent allowance disappointed Missoula health officers, who asked the board to approve an unusual system where Smurfit-Stone would be given credits for operating well below the standard. Those credits could then be used to offset violations.
"This rule is less stringent than necessary," complained Jim Carlson, the city-county environmental health director. "Stone is able to operate within the 20 percent limit 98 percent of the time. There's no need for a 6 percent allowance."
(Opacity measures how much of the background view is obstructed by smoke coming from a stack. A 20 percent limit means that no more than 20 percent of the background can be obstructed.)
The rule in place before Friday's board meeting limited all of the mill's boilers to 30 percent opacity, without an automatic allowance for violations.
The 6 percent allowance, Carlson said, will let Smurfit-Stone operate its largest boiler - No. 4 - closer to the 20 percent limit "without fear of any sort of penalty." The mill could, in fact, violate the limit for 1,296 6-minute periods each quarter and not be charged with a violation.
Mill manager Boschee assured the board that his intention is not to increase emissions. But, he said, the allowance does "provide a little bit of relief."
The incentive plan proposed by Missoula County was simply not acceptable, he said.
"We are very opposed to an incentive program. It is unparalleled in the industry and in the nation," Boschee said during the meeting, which was held over the Montana Educational Telecommunications Network from four different locations.
Boschee said an incentive program would leave his mill unsure about the state's expectations, and he suggested that it was more an attempt to increase regulation of the pulp mill than to protect the health and environment of Missoula citizens.
"This is a can of worms," he said. "I don't know if we will ever get to the bottom of it once we open it."
Most board members agreed with Boschee. In Billings, board member Joe Gerbase said industries are accustomed to "operating within a certain matrix that they understand. An incentive proposal shakes everything up. It gambles with Stone Container's money, with their profits."
Board member Garon Smith, a chemist at the University of Montana and author of Missoula County's incentive proposal, disagreed. Even after the vote, from which he abstained, he asked that state regulators and Smurfit-Stone continue to think about an incentive program.
"I would like Montana to someday be the origin of a more creative, inventive approach to regulation," Smith said.
Board member Dan Dennehy of Butte cast the lone vote against the new opacity limit. He said the limit wasn't strict enough. Missoula's air requires a tougher approach to environmental regulation, he said.
Environmental activists agreed, and criticized the board for selecting an alternative written by Smurfit-Stone. "After spending thousan
ds of hours of people's time, and no doubt many tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, the BER has failed once again to give our community its due," said Darrell Geist of Montana CHEER.
"Maybe the BER thinks they've struck some compromise that has taken all sides into consideration," Geist said. "But what they have done is disregarded the public health threat of fine particulate exposure from Stone's pulp mill, and given Stone the green light to violate air quality standards without penalty. Some compromise."
Carlson, at the City-County Health Department, said the No. 4 boiler was built at a time when the state imposed a stricter - no allowance for violations - 20 percent opacity rule.
Four years ago, Stone and the state secretly negotiated a new, more lenient rule. Missoula County objected in court, and eventually won the state's agreement to reopen the rulemaking process.
On Friday, Carlson commended the Board of Environmental Review for its attention to Missoula County and the public over the past year. "Regardless of the outcome, we have had a public process," he said. "This board has listened very carefully and tried very earnestly to understand some very complex technical and regulatory issues."
The resulting rule wasn't as restrictive as Missoula County had hoped, Carlson said, "but it better serves the Missoula airshed than the rules on the books the last several years."