Pulp mill prepares for expansion on Tideflats

The WestRock pulp and paper mill is upgrading its facility with cleaner equipment to boost volumes of production that will also increase overall pollution, although still below state thresholds and air quality standards. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

The WestRock pulp and paper mill located in the Tacoma Tideflats has permits in the works to upgrade its chip-screening system that will allow for higher production volumes through a cleaner process than its current equipment. The cleaner equipment, however, could ultimately create more pollution with the increased production.

The new equipment will replace existing, less efficient equipment and include finer screens to filter out smaller wood dust and chips while adding about 90 tons of daily chip production to the facility’s capacity. This bump in operational capacity will cause an overall increase in WestRock’s emissions of dust and air pollution in the form of formaldehyde and chloroform, albeit below state thresholds and air quality standards. 

The state’s Department of Ecology has already greenlighted the project with a determination of non-significance for its air quality permit, meaning that the department doesn’t think the upgrades will pose significant negative environmental impacts. A public hearing on the permit and environmental review process, however, is set for 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 17 at the Portland Avenue Community Center. The deadline for written comment is the following day, July 18.

“We expect there will be an increase in pulp and paper production and some air pollutants,” according to Ecology documents regarding the project. “The pollutant increases will not exceed air quality standards.”

The updated system will specifically add about 600 pounds of “suspended particulates,” 1,000 pounds of minute particles, 7,800 pounds of “volatile organic compounds” and 31,000 pounds of “toxic air pollutants” such as lead, nitrogen dioxide and ozone into the air each year, according to a summary of the project.

“Of course, pollution is not great but there is industry here that people rely on and that industry has byproducts,” said Citizens for a Healthy Bay Policy and Technical Project Manager Erin Dilworth. “We can’t come down on WestRock because it hasn’t done anything wrong.”

The non-profit watchdog of Commencement Bay, however, is working on its formal comment letter regarding the project that will call for tighter pollution standards overall.

WestRock was formerly known as Simpson Tacoma Kraft before it was sold to RockTenn, which then merged with MeadWestvaco Corp in a $16 billion deal to form WestRock in 2015. The Tacoma location employs about 400 people. That payroll puts it as the county’s 54th highest employer between the food distribution company McLane Northwest and the Fife School District, according to the Economic Development Board of Tacoma-Pierce County.

The local operation is one of the few facilities the company has on the West Coast. Most of its 300 operations are located in the Southeast, Europe, Asia and South America. The company of 45,000 workers ranks second in its industry on Fortune magazine’s annual list of the World’s Most Admired Companies, a listing it has gained since the company formed.

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