The pulp and paper industry is calling an increase of toxic chemicals that are being released into the state’s environment a sign 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 between 2009 and 2010, an increase of 1.14 million pounds over the previous year.

State environmental officials say that increase falls within guidelines that 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 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 U.S., 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. It 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.”

According to Keith Van Scotter, president and CEO of Lincoln Paper and Tissue, away-from-home-tissue product markets — tissue used in public restrooms and kitchens — declined between 5 and 6 percent at the peak of the recession.

“In 2010, we saw some modest growth over 2009,” Van Scotter said. “But (away-from-home-tissue) has been slower for a variety of reasons, obviously related to travel, but also related to more hot air hand dryers in airports, stores, etc. Unemployment is still high and there are fewer people traveling. In general, at-home markets have come back much better.”

Loyzim said large industrial plants in Maine, such as paper mills, are required by federal laws and the terms of DEP-issued emission licenses to conduct testing for toxic pollutants. She said the DEP sets and enforces science-based limits and monitors toxins in the environment.

She said discharges and emissions are reported to the Environmental Protection Agency for the inventory under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. Mills also are required to report air emissions to the state Department of Environmental Protection under the Clean Air Act.

People are at a greater risk of exposure from compounds when they are released, for example, by breathing vapors while filling a car’s gas tank or sitting in a room with an old leaky woodstove, Loyzim said.

David Deegan, spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, said Maine has more paper and pulp mills than other New England states, which combined saw a 287,337-pound reduction in pollutants in 2010. He said the Toxic Release Inventory numbers show there is a recovery in Maine companies releasing chemicals.

Loyzim, however, said she wasn’t in a position to say whether the increase in emissions is the result of Maine’s recovering economy.

“I am not sure if the increase in total reported discharges from 2009 to 2010 — bringing reported releases to a level still less than in 2008 and years previous — is due to economic conditions, because I am not an economist,” Loyzim said.

‘Mainers should not be alarmed’

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, 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 toxic 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, she said. It 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.

She said the federal guideline level for acrolein is 100 times lower than Maine’s detection standard.

Loyzim said toxins reported to the Toxic Release Inventory only represented chemicals directly released from production plants, not how those releases translate into concentrations in the environment or their toxicity.

Pollution concerns

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, Maine Policy Review by Mary Davis, an economist and School of Economics at the University of Maine professor.

King said states 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.

The current law that is limiting the EPA’s ability to do just that is the 35-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act, which she describes as outdated and in need of reform.

King said the proposed Safe Chemicals Act would overhaul that law and give the EPA access to the information it needs to evaluate the thousands of chemicals on the market. She said it also would give the EPA the authority to restrict use of the most dangerous chemicals.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., introduced such legislation last year — giving the EPA more power to regulate the use of dangerous chemicals and require manufacturers to submit information proving the safety of every chemical in production — but no action has been taken.

“The average American has more than 200 industrial chemicals in their body, including dozens linked to cancer and other health problems,” Lautenberg says on his website. “The shocking truth is that the current law does not require tests to ensure chemicals used in everyday household products are safe.”

Samantha DePoy-Warren, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said the department doesn’t have a stance on the Safe Chemical Act because it hasn’t been part of the discussions at the federal level.

“I will say that we think there is value in having consistent regulations nationally instead of having them vary state by state, as they often do now, as that national regulation would level the playing field,” DePoy-Warren said. “And I know that the department does feel (the act) needs updating to move from its current prescriptive approach to a more risk-based approach.”

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663

[email protected]

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