LUKE, Md. – Although Westvaco’s paper mill in recent years has emitted more toxic pollutants than any other manufacturer in Maryland, residents of this tiny Western Maryland town aren’t complaining.
Alex Taylor, a clerk at the wood-shingled post office, said he has seen improvements at the plant, where most of his aunts and uncles work and his father toiled for 38 years.
“When I was little, the river below the plant was mucky,” said Taylor, 28. “Nobody fished there because there were no fish in the river. And the hill behind it was all gray.”
But, he said, “by the early ’80s it started to change. Now the hill is green, full of wildlife … and people line up on the bank fishing.”
Melvin “Bob” White, president of the United Paperworkers International Union Local 676, said workers’ only real gripe is that they don’t want to wear the safety goggles, hard hats and earplugs that the company requires.
Some residents said the plant does produce an odor, but they called it typically mild and inoffensive. They said it’s a “bread and butter” or “money” smell.
An occasionally strong “rotten egg smell,” worse in the summer, disappeared four or five years ago, said Margie Barncord, 28, manager of the local union office.
Situated on the banks of the Potomac River, the mill facilities straddle Allegany and Garrett counties in Western Maryland and Mineral County, W.Va.
Its stacks billow white smoke high into the sky along the riverbanks, past the limits of Luke, whose welcome sign claims 424 residents.
The Luke fine paper mill is the largest employer and taxpayer in the three counties.
It also was the biggest point polluter of toxic chemicals in Maryland in all but one year from 1989 through 1993, according to an analysis of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory.
But the data also show that toxic pollution releases from the mill are dramatically dropping – from 5.9 million pounds in 1989 to 2.1 million pounds in 1993.
Changes at the plant account for the declining pollution totals.
In 1977 and 1978, to meet more stringent EPA regulations, the company spent $6 million to improve waste treatment and prevent sludge from returning to the river, according to company reports.
By 1988, plenty of fish were in the river, but in 1989, both Maryland and West Virginia warned anglers not to eat bottom feeding fish, environmental officials in both states said.
Fish tissue samples showed dioxin levels that the Food and Drug Administration called unsafe.
By Oct. 30, 1992, West Virginia had lifted all warnings against eating sport fish. On Aug. 6, 1993, Maryland lifted its advisories.
Over the past seven years, Westvaco has spent more than $50.5 million to reduce pollution to air and water at the Luke mill. The plant uses 18.5 million gallons of water and burns 1,000 tons of coal to make 2,300 tons of paper and pulp daily, according to company publications.
It will spend $24 million to switch its bleaching process from chlorine to chlorine dioxide, a move expected to be complete by April 1997, said Roger Dandridge, vice president and manager of the Luke mill.
Chlorine can combine with other chemicals used by paper mills to produce trace amounts of dioxin discharged into waterways. Dioxin has been linked to cancer, birth defects and reproductive and immune system problems, according to the EPA.
Dandridge said its dioxin production has been below levels deemed detectable by the EPA since 1990.
He said the mill now produces about 0.3 grams of dioxin annually, an amount the plant’s technical director, Ken Wendell, said is equal to a couple of specks on a teaspoon.
But some public interest groups say that still may be too much.
“Dioxin is toxic at extremely low levels, even levels that may not be detectable with current technology,” said Dan Pontious, executive director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group.
“Given that, according to a 1994 EPA assessment, the levels of dioxin in most people is at or near the level where we see serious health effects, we think chlorine and chlorine-related compounds should be eliminated from the paper-making process altogether,” he said.
The mill has installed devices to clean and filter smoke and gases and has built taller stacks to discharge them higher into the air, documents show.
Methanol emissions, reduced to less than one fifth of their 1989 levels, would be impossible to eliminate, Wendell said, because wood alcohol is an inevitable byproduct of pulp and paper production.
He said he does not believe methanol is hazardous, and disagrees with the EPA’s policy of including it in the Toxics Release Inventory.
The plant continues to emit high levels of hydrochloric acid because it burns coal to provide its own steam and electricity, plant officials said.
“Obviously, we are a smokestack industry, and the only pulp and paper mill in Maryland, but there’s nothing more important in our business than our environmental performance,” said Dandridge. “We don’t hide anything.”
The mill does a lot for the community, said Rick Wilkinson, 43, of Westernport, who works at a local gas station. “I’d give my right arm to work there. It’s hard to raise a kid pumping gas.”
The plant employs 1,700 workers who make bleached sulphate pulp and papers used in glossy magazines and book covers.